Let’s hear it for the humanities in the fight against Covid-19

By Charlotte Hempel

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic there has been a lot of talk and a little bit of reflection on the new mantra that “the science” is the source of government policy. There is also a debate in certain quarters about which parts of our universities deliver something that is worthwhile, with the occasional implication that the humanities are expendable.

I am a scholar of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls which were discovered in Qumran in the Judean Desert in 1947. My material sheds light on a crucial period that would come to define both emerging Christianity and classical Judaism and many aspects of the world we live in today.

But I guess some might say we know about as much as we need to about this faraway time, money is tight, and: what is the point?

Well, the point is that humanities scholars have a great deal to offer on what is happening right here, right now, including in high-level government meetings across the globe, their make-up, their thinking, their power structures and their communication, and the way these are reproduced in the media.

Our business is highlighting nuance and humility about our ability to distil truth. My evidence is ancient, biased, and fragmented. As for statistics of deaths — my (no-gender intended) guys are all dead.

I don’t know how many deaths I am dealing with and how many of those who died left anything for me to pick up and think about. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about those people who left nothing behind.

In fact, I once wrote a scholarly paper entitled Who Is Making Dinner at Qumran? I figured that  someone did, even though the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t tell us. Key workers didn’t get due acknowledgement then any more than now.

And once I’d asked the question, I read some very familiar material afresh. Historians across many periods have moved beyond queens, kings, and warlords to the humbler domestic lives of the dead. Working with a wealth of words from the caves of the Judean Desert that no one had read for more than 2,000 years, words that leave so much unsaid or project a picture that needs challenging: this requires critical thinking.

I challenge my sources all the time, I challenge my colleagues’ work — and I challenge my own thinking even more. Both in my own head and in conversations. I think about the spaces — often huge spaces — between the evidence.

What we find depends greatly also on what we look for, how we look, where we look and what we call what we find when we find it. Take the Covid-19 death toll, for example. The daily briefing data initially did not initially include care homes.  Then a note in brackets was added to alert us to the fact that the presented figures referred to hospital deaths only. I missed the same bracket for other countries.

Does that mean all the other graphs included just the hospital figures? Or did that apply only to the UK’s graph? Challenging frameworks, arguments and thinking is a good thing, and this is something we all share in universities and passionately pass on to our students who can draw on it for a lifetime in boardrooms or classrooms.

I mention boardrooms because a study commissioned by the British Academy has found that 58 per cent of chief executives of FTSE 100 companies have either an undergraduate or postgraduate degrees in the arts and humanities and social sciences.

We also know that the journey to something approximating truth involves being able to be wrong.  Being wrong and reflecting on how and why is excellent progress and much more productive than thinking you, or others, are right all the time, as that blinds us. So are failures as the widely lauded CV of Failures published by the Princeton Professor Johannes Haushofer demonstrates.

What this brings to the table is the need for nuance and humility about our shared endeavour to shape a better world. Even with a group of the best brains in the universe there will be essential areas that get overlooked. This is why it is great that now, for instance, the army is helping with the government effort to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic with logistics.

But shouldn’t we have known the places where testing was needed at the outset? We could have found the care homes rather than have the care workers find the test sites. Committees in Whitehall could have listened to representatives from various sectors of society rather than hearing their voices on the radio first.

Universities are called universities for a reason. They engage in a wide range of world-leading research and deliver higher education. All of us are up against it since there are no easy and rarely definitive answers. Good and new questions are our lifeblood. We discover new insights about where the good answers lurk and we move towards them often until the day we die.

Scholars of the humanities are amazing at writing. What good do words do for anyone? Well, a lot. We scribble, write, edit, scrap, start again — we decide it is all nonsense and go to bed. Get up, have a shower — get an insight — keep going. The reason this matters is that writing is a form of thinking and reflecting and weighing up.

The keyboard is our lab and words are our chemicals. They have the power to illuminate and transform how we and others think. Words change the world — both for better and worse. Just take the phrase “key workers”, which over the past months has replaced the words “unskilled labour”. I have also been struck by the powerful impact of nurses and care home workers who shared their stories on social media and the more traditional channels. Their words touch us because of our shared humanity and the power of their words, in that moment, glues us together.

Words also see us out. Once medical science is no longer able to keep us alive, the power of words is perhaps more to the fore than ever. I know the way we say our goodbyes is terribly impacted by this crisis. But even now the kind words of nurses and care home workers make all the difference. And poems and sacred texts often reaching across decades, centuries and millennia still speak to many. That is because at such moments we are face-to-face with our innate fragility that is the only certainty about the human condition.

It is music, the arts, history, literature, philosophy, and — for some — faith and spirituality that make that situation bearable.

Charlotte Hempel is professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at Birmingham University