Royal Geographical Society publishes special COVID-19 issue

Matt Sparke, co-organizer of Global and Community Health program, highlights scholarship that contextualizes the pandemic

Photo of Matt Sparke
In his article, Matt Sparke includes links to contributions by many of his UCSC colleagues, including Sara Niedzwiecki, Nancy Chen, Jenny Reardon, and Chris Benner. (Photo courtesy of Matt Sparke)

Matt Sparke, professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz, wanted to do something more than follow the news about the coronavirus pandemic.

As a geographer with expertise in globalization and global health, Sparke is familiar with the challenges the crisis is laying bare around inequality, access to medical care, and the political and economic determinants of health. He is also familiar with scholarship addressing the global interdependencies that have been exposed and exploited by the crisis.

That's when he decided to write an article in his capacity as editor of the lead journal of the Royal Geographical Society. The virtual special issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, online now, features Sparke's article, "Contextualizing Coronavirus Geographically," and provides free access to a wide range of previously published geography articles that provide perspective on the pandemic.

"This article represents an attempt to think through what I see as our social and institutional 'response abilities,'" said Sparke. "As an editor of a flagship journal, I felt that we needed to offer fellow geographers and the wider public a road map for connecting existing geographical work on health and disease with the shared planetary challenge of responding to the crisis."

The Global and Community Health Program at UCSC, which Sparke is helping to develop, will coordinate the campus's health-related research, as well as offer multidisciplinary bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees. "The pandemic underscores the value of developing this Global and Community Health program," said Sparke, a member of the board of the UC Global Health Institute.

Sparke thinks there is a role in this interdisciplinary effort for some of the other geographers at UCSC, too.

“We don’t have a geography department, but we do have geographers aplenty appointed across a wide array of disciplines from Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Politics, to Community Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies, as well as in the Physical and Biological Sciences Division," he said. "Geographers bring a capacity to contribute across disciplines, as well as their spatial and contextual concerns, to health challenges such as COVID-19."

But geographers do not think they have a "monopoly on all things spatial," said Sparke. "They just bring a lot of useful ideas about how the geographies of infection, vulnerability, blame, and care intersect and interconnect spatially."

Sparke's article includes links to contributions from several of his UCSC colleagues, including: Sari Niedzwiecki in Politics, who compares and contrasts how government capacity to enforce lock-downs varies by country; Nancy Chen, whose anthropological work on biosecurity highlights how it can co-generate vulnerability; Jenny Reardon, the director of the Science and Justice Center, who launched a Sociology course on what she calls the ‘pandemicine’; and Chris Benner, the director of the Institute of Social Transformation, who has been writing about the need for solidarity economics in response to the crisis.

Many other UCSC faculty have already contributed crucial crisis responses, said Sparke, including scientists who have created a campus lab for COVID testing; and the economist Kristian López Vargas, who helped develop a contact tracing app.

Sparke also noted the contributions UCSC alumni are making during the crisis, including community studies graduate Barbara Ferrer, who leads the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and journalist and author Laurie Garrett, a leading authority on epidemiology.

UCSC's approach to global health is rooted in a concern with community-level injustice, said Sparke, noting extreme inequalities in health access and health outcomes among residents of Silicon Valley, Pajaro Valley, and the Central Valley. 

"Addressing these local community health inequalities will involve research as well as teaching and curricula development," said Sparke. The campus offers expertise in biological research into neglected diseases and environmental toxicology, as well as social science expertise on the health of vulnerable migrant communities and issues of food security and well-being. 

"Across this range of work, UCSC really can make a big difference," he said. "For now we all have to help get through the COVID crisis together, and my editorial essay was one contribution to this collective effort."