Emilie Mosnier, a doctor in epidemiology, divides her time between her duties as a doctor and infectiologist, and her research in public health. She joined forces with the anthropologist Olivia Nevissas to carry out a study on an essential group in the response to the Covid crisis, which is very exposed to numerous, especially psychosocial risks, and which nevertheless remains understudied: the volunteers.

Your research focuses on volunteers. Why broach this subject in particular, in the context of the Covid crisis?

Emilie Mosnier: volunteers represent a large part of the response to crises. This has always been the case at the Red Cross, and it has been especially confirmed during the Covid crisis. The Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur branch, for example, welcomed no less than 600 new volunteers over this period. This large and essential group, acting on the front lines, is nevertheless rarely studied. It seemed important to me to know more.

The epidemic had a big impact on everybody, and especially on volunteers involved in assistance missions, which were more or less connected to the disease: mutual aid activities, food distribution, patient transfers, school support… My research aims to evaluate and describe the psychosocial impact of the Covid crisis, to identify the individual and collective adaptation strategies that appeared, and to analyse how the relationship to risk may have evolved and influenced behaviours.

Your study is divided between Marseille and Guyana. Can you explain this choice?

EM: although Guyana is a French territory, it has specificities in terms of population, precarity, ethnic diversity, public services… Carrying out our study in this territory and in Marseille gave a taste of a comparative analysis between the West and the Global South. Moreover, the organisation of volunteering within the Red Cross is very different. Finally, we noticed a temporal disparity in the epidemic wave between the two areas. The relationship to risk transformed according to the stages of the crisis: first came fear, for oneself and for one’s loved ones, then the development of knowledge gradually led to a better mastery of risk. Studying Guyana and Marseille in parallel therefore enabled us to take these evolutions into account.

What are the first insights to come out of your research, especially in relation to the psychological impact of the crisis on volunteers?

EM: paradoxically, the feedback was not necessarily negative. At a time when the French people were suffering from isolation or being forced to do nothing, volunteers felt useful, even essential, and their sociability was reinforced. The crisis validated their engagement: they were valued, namely by the influx of new volunteers who needed their experience and knowledge. Faced with the Covid threat, some felt that they were experiencing a great adventure. Over-investment in volunteer engagement can incidentally be a collectively activated defence mechanism in the face of a threat.

Naturally, lots of volunteers also complained of fatigue, irritability, and exhaustion. They were subjected to cumulative stresses, linked not only to their volunteer activities, but also to doubts about their professional lives, or fears for their families. Many were destabilised by the crisis, especially due to the beneficiaries’ insecurity. On another level, seniors, who often make up large contingents of volunteers, took the request to keep their distance very hard. Ultimately, the desire to protect them from Covid deprived them of the secondary social benefits linked to volunteering.

How can your research contribute to improving the organisation of the response by volunteers in crises to come?

EM: crises enable us to make leaps forward in terms of innovation. Our study aimed to compile feedback in order to inform concrete applications. It was a question of analysing the collective adaptation strategies that emerged from the crisis, and reflecting on the innovations that might be made permanent, and on potential lacks that need to be addressed. For example, the epidemic gave rise to ‘self-support groups’, services spontaneously created by field actors to respond to the emergency and to new needs, using tools like WhatsApp. How can these be developed in the context of the Red Cross, and be made into a shared resource? Older volunteers reacted badly to being kept at a distance… How can we better prepare or nuance the kinds of recommendations that structure volunteering within the Red Cross? Finally, we noticed that the biggest source of suffering for volunteers came from the insecurity and distress of the beneficiaries. Which measures might be implemented to better accompany, listen to, and support volunteers?

You are a physician, a doctor of epidemiology, trained in the hard sciences. What do the social sciences bring to your research?

EM: since Ebola, the usefulness of the social sciences to improve crisis response in the event of epidemics has been indisputable. Studying people’s representations and needs is essential in order to change behaviours. We can see it again with the Covid crisis: the issue of behaviour is the main means to fight against the epidemic. After the issue of respecting protective measures will come the challenge of vaccination and the fight against reticence and fake news. Epidemiology is a science that uses data and figures. But in order to really understand the issues and untangle the complexity of populations’ reactions, the social sciences are indispensable. They are already part of the Scientific Council set up in France to guide public health decisions. The next step could be to give more space to people’s feelings, listen better to patients, and develop therapeutic education, so that people could take control of their health and of the strategies that are implemented. The social sciences have a major part to play in achieving this objective.

Photo above: ©IFRC