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Crises – plural… 

It is beyond doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic made much of the world end up in crisis. But what crisis is this? Or should we rather ask: what crises are these? Our predicament is that we are caught up in several crises at once. We are facing at least, a public health crisis, an economic crisis, a crisis of inequality, a knowledge crisis, and a moral crisis, and these are largely entwined.

The public health crisis directly threatens the health and lives of many, puts (medical) resources under severe pressure worldwide and in a sense is the seed out of which all other crises have grown. Due to measures to counteract the virus and to protect public health, around the world countless people have lost their jobs and companies are going bankrupt. Meanwhile, the virus emphasizes rather than effaces differences in terms of, amongst other things, socio-economic and health status, e.g. vulnerable people, often living in disadvantaged areas, are more severely hit by both the disease and the lockdowns. The evidence that containment measures are necessarily based on limited clinical knowledge while excluding many societal voices, creating a dual uncertainty about measures’ effectiveness. And finally, decisions that are among the hardest to make have to be made at short notice and high impact by a plethora of actors  – from personnel at Intensive Care Units to advisory institutes and political executives.

And then, from one locality to another, there potentially are even more crises to consider. What to think of a crisis of democracy (Hungary), privacy (China) or international solidarity (US)? And what will it mean for the environment if due to the current economic crisis the price of fossil fuels will remain so low for a long time as to make it impossible for sustainable energy to compete?

Attempts to get beyond this crisis?

This motley collection of crises really makes up one big knot – let’s call this the corona-crisis. Attempting to get beyond the crisis in a fair, equitable and responsible way, a large set of types of knowledge and value articulations are requisite, and governance arrangement for weighing and connecting those. All this makes the corona-crisis a paradigm case of a complex, unstructured problem.

From past examples of such problems, we know that disciplinary approaches do not suffice to deal with them – in trying to solve one aspect of the problem, other aspects amplify, and new, unforeseen problems emerge. There are no magic bullets (“the” vaccine!) that help solve them once and for all. Alternatives to mono-disciplinary research and problem-solving include transdisciplinary approaches to research and (policy) action. At the Athena Institute, we have years of experience with such approaches in a variety of fields that are immediately implicated in, or impacted on, by the corona-crisis – from health systems to global (mental) health and from agriculture and the food system to facilitating dialogues between science, policy and society. On this website, we bring these together in an attempt to facilitate collective ways to unravel this global crisis using our transdisciplinary approach. 


Head of the Athena Institute and professor of innovation and communication in the health and life sciences

The Athena Institute is a research and education department at the Faculty of Science, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Athena believes that science should actively contribute to a healthy, inclusive and sustainable world. As a scientific research and education institute, studying and designing science-society interfaces, we are pursuing this vision by analysing and integrating diverse perspectives and enabling joint action. 

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