Collaboration in a Time of COVID-19
(COVID-19 Blog Series)

By Professor Bernadette McSherry
Foundation Director, Melbourne Social Equity Institute

Thursday 14 May 2020

Since the COVID-19 lockdown started, my emotions have fluctuated from despair at the social inequities highlighted by the pandemic (as discussed, for example, by my colleagues here, here and here) to feeling pride in how well Australian governments have responded to research-informed expert advice in containing the virus.

In between Zoom and Skype meetings, I spent the first week in lockdown trawling through every piece of information I could find on the spread of the virus and I made sure to tune in to every government announcement.

When the Prime Minister referred in March to jigsaw puzzles as an essential item that people could leave home to buy, I assumed he was being flippant. Then I saw reports that jigsaw sales were soaring and I remembered how I’d loved doing them in younger years. The next thing I knew there were 2,000 tiny pieces of jigsaw spread out on the dining table.

The picture my partner and I are trying to assemble is a drawing of New York’s Broadway. There are taxi cabs, tall buildings, neon signs, a horse drawn cart for tourists and people everywhere. It’s called The Great White Way, the nickname for Broadway which originated in the nineteenth century after electrical lighting was first introduced there.

While the drawing is a sad reminder of how much the people of New York City have gone through in their response to COVID-19, the process of fitting pieces together with a satisfying click has prompted me to think about how slowly, piece by piece, connections can form a bigger picture.

Thomas Cech, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the American Biologist Gerald Rubin have described interdisciplinary research as bringing together a “collaboration of [researchers] with largely non overlapping training and core expertise to solve a problem that lies outside the grasp of the individual [researcher]”.

The interdisciplinary research projects we facilitate through the Melbourne Social Equity Institute can be as slow going as piecing together a puzzle. This is not only because of the difficult social equity issues sought to be addressed, but also because we often work with members of disadvantaged communities with whom collaborative relationships take time to develop.

Throughout the lockdown, I’ve been buoyed by the fact our researchers are continuing to work together and have found sometimes ingenious ways such as via photos and videomaking to ensure our students and community members remain engaged.  While it’s been difficult to catch up with some collaborators, I’ve still managed to meet new colleagues via Zoom and had ‘virtual’ conversations with colleagues from around the world including those in Turkey, Sweden, England and Canada who are working on our SEREDA project.

While medical research may be at the forefront of our minds in addressing the issues caused by COVID-19, it’s also been great to see a focus on the ‘wisdom’ of the social sciences in responding to the pandemic.

The framework for our jigsaw puzzle is now in place and we’ve pieced together most of the yellow taxis and about a third of the signs. It’s slow going, but our persistence is paying off. As I reflect on both my work and home life in the time of COVID-19, I can think of no better motto than that from E M Forster’s Howard’s End:

Only connect…Live in fragments no longer.

Professor Bernadette McSherry is the Foundation Director of the Melbourne Social Equity Institute at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on criminal law and mental health law and she often works with collaborators on large interdisciplinary research projects. Professor McSherry is the Immediate Past President of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Psychiatry, Psychology and Law and in 2019 she was appointed a Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System.