Exceptional mobilisation for an exceptional situation! At the beginning of 2020, anticipating the emergence of an extraordinary crisis, the French Red Cross Foundation launched a number of ‘flash calls’. Whereas the drafting of calls for projects, the examination of submissions, the selection of laureates and the signing of conventions usually takes six months, everything was wrapped up in a couple of weeks. On April 1, 2020, the epidemiologist Emilie Mosnier became the first selected researcher, for a study carried out with the French Red Cross on the impact of the crisis on volunteers. Six other projects were launched immediately afterwards.

Three emergency projects on French soil, three others in countries from the Global South

How to guarantee the continuity of essential actions in the fight against the epidemic whilst relying on volunteers? How to prepare, train, accompany and manage these people who give their time to demanding, sensitive, and crucial missions? Volunteers, who are an essential resource on the front lines, are the subject of three research projects carried out on French soil. Isabelle Parizot, a sociologist, wanted to analyse the new forms of engagement and the new vulnerabilities caused by the health measures, focusing particularly on the ‘Croix-Rouge chez vous’ programme. The motivations behind volunteer engagement are the focus of a study carried out in partnership with the Institut Pasteur under the supervision of the anthropologist Tamara Giles-Vernick. The research examines volunteers’ perceptions of the health crisis, in the face of security information, operational instructions and rumours. Finally, Emilie Mosnier, a physician and infectiologist and a researcher in public health, analysed the psychosocial impact of the epidemic on volunteers and the adaptation strategies that they developed in response to the crisis. She has already produced an intermediary report and revealed her initial reflections for the PACAC regional directorate (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur-Corse) of the French Red Cross. Three other projects, also focused on volunteer engagement, and located in Haiti, Madagascar and Senegal, will present their conclusions in 2021. Sévérine Carillion’s project in Senegal is part of a wider project on the impact of the epidemic in several African countries.

Emergency vs Research Timelines

The aim of the series of research projects on the subject of Covid-19 is to provide concrete answers to field actors. From the beginning of the crisis, the WHO has encouraged the human and social sciences to examine the sustainability of volunteer engagement in view of a protracted crisis. These research projects are carried out in collaboration with those responsible for the exceptional emergency action plan implemented by the French Red Cross.

Yet naturally, research does not follow an emergency timeline. This is due to a number of reasons. For example, the distribution of questionnaires amongst volunteers requires sampling from databases whose access is strictly regulated, which brings up important ethical and technical questions. Facilitating researchers’ access to field teams and intervention fields in emergency situations entails complex organisational issues. Finally, once the data is collected, time is required for analysis, comparisons, and follow-up studies, sometimes over the long term. This is especially true when the focus is on vulnerable groups, as in the case of the sociologist Cyrine Gardes’ research on the impact of the crisis on poor and precarious workers.

In this context, the role of the Foundation is that of an intermediary, seeking the right balance between respect for the rhythm of research and the need to produce operational results. It was important to immediately mobilise researchers in the field. It is essential to rapidly produce intermediary reports and research directions amongst operational actors.

Yet it will probably be in late 2021 that the research projects carried out on the Covid-19 crisis will reach their full potential and be presented, contrasted and compared during webinars, in publications, or better still, in the context of long-awaited live events and debates.

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