Research under Covid-19
Securitisation of development research under Covid-19,
fieldwork (dis)continuation and ethical dilemmas
par / by Camille Pellerin
Much has been written about the ‘disruptions’ and negative impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on field research in development studies. Travel restrictions and universities’ travel policies, intended at keeping their staff safe and preventing employees from getting stranded abroad, have severely restricted researchers’ ability to conduct fieldwork. Addressing such issues, researchers have shared a host of recommendations on various blogs and social media on how to continue data collection during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many have encouraged reverting to distance and digital forms of data collection and also outsourcing data collection to individuals residing in the countries under study . Unfortunately, many contributions have been characterised by a focus on researchers in the Global North and how their work has been affected by the global pandemic . Covid-19 university travel protocols established in the Global North risk exacerbating existing inequalities between researchers in the Global North and their collaborators and research participants in the Global South. In the absence of adequate institutional responses regarding how to deal with the pandemic in a field of research that often depends on travel and North-South research collaborations for data collection, it is up to researchers to raise the issue with their respective institutions and colleagues and to pressure them to address it.
Camille Pellerin (PhD in Development Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science), is a researcher at the Department of Government, Uppsala University and an affiliate researcher at the CFEE. Her research focuses on state – society relations, democratisation, political reform, public administration and urban conflict in the Horn of Africa.
Covid-19 fieldwork protocols: reinforcing existing inequalities between North and South?
Universities in the Global North have in many cases motivated their decisions to discontinue fieldwork travel by reasoning that such activities put researchers at risk. Despite following public health rules with respect to their own employees, these same rules have not consistently been applied to Southern researchers and assistants working on development research projects hosted by universities in the Global North. Many researchers and assistants from the Global South are not formally employed by the universities in the North and instead work on project-based engagement. They often directly report to the researchers on whose projects they work, rather than to the human resource divisions of universities, who often know nothing or very little about the work of the researchers and assistants in the Global South. Research in/on conflict and post-conflict settings has since long outsourced data collection and risks associated with it to researchers and assistants in the Global South . Under the Covid-19 pandemic and with the existing travel restrictions, there is a high probability that Northern researchers will rely even more on individuals and organisations located in the countries they study. If not done with caution, there is a high probability that risks associated to data collection during the pandemic will also be outsourced. As most Southern researchers and assistants who are employed on development research projects do not benefit from health insurance and other forms of social security packages, this practice is all the more problematic. Given existing inequalities in access to healthcare and safety nets between the Global North and South, a Northern researcher is in most cases less at risk than a Southern researcher despite the Northern researcher’s safety being the primary concern in universities’ Covid-19 risk mitigation measures.
In many developing country contexts, even the WHO’s basic and seemingly low-cost recommendations for the prevention of Covid-19 spread, including regular hand washing, social distancing and isolating vulnerable groups, are unaffordable luxuries. In the absence of well-functioning public services, the vast majority of people lack access to clean water, share crowded accommodations and reside in multi-generational homes where they often care for the sick and elderly. Communal lifestyles and sharing responsibilities to sustain livelihoods constitute people’s safety nets and their disruption can cause significant hardship. Northern researchers conducting fieldwork in the Global South, in many cases, live in conditions where they have access to clean water and have the financial means to buy safety equipment to prevent the spread of and infection with Covid-19, such as masks and sanitisers. Few live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible. Hence, at the outset, most Northern researchers are better positioned to protect themselves from the risks of Covid-19 infection while on fieldwork than are the people they work with. They are also more likely to receive medical treatment should they contract the virus.
Many Northern researchers who were on fieldwork when the pandemic struck were called back by their universities. Those who were fortunate enough to be able to stay and continue their work have faced multiple ethical dilemmas. While ethics guidelines and risk mitigation frameworks always mandate adaptation to contexts and are never sufficient to cover all ethical concerns in field research, the Covid-19 pandemic presents new challenges. This is caused among others by the lack of knowledge regarding the virus and its transmission, as well as the fact that Covid-19 presents an invisible threat. Many researchers on fieldwork found themselves left alone to think through and decide how to conduct fieldwork under Covid-19. While universities’ advice for work under Covid has mostly focused on their employees’ safety, Northern researchers have often worked in environments where their safety has been less at risk than the one of their Southern collaborators and research participants. Therefore, continuing data collection raises particular ethical challenges.
Research Ethics and Collaborative Fieldwork under Covid-19 in Ethiopia
I was on fieldwork in Addis Ababa during the Covid-19 pandemic. After many discussions with colleagues, friends and family and one month of isolation at home, I decided to continue my work, but to modify data collection practices to reduce risks for research participants and collaborators. Instead of outsourcing data collection and risks, I pooled and took care of risks myself, taking into account that I was in a better position to mitigate them and to deal with adverse consequences.
- In the absence of clear guidelines from my home university, I followed the protocols for work from my host institution in Addis Ababa and the government rules and regulations proclaimed under the Covid-19 sanitary state of emergency. This included among others, wearing facemasks, respecting limits of number of participants in any form of meetings and restrictions for travel by public transport and use of office spaces.
- I did not ask research participants to travel for interviews to avoid exposing them to risk of Covid-19 infection during travel. Instead I travelled to them and interviewed them at their offices (if they went to work) or close to their homes (for those who lost their jobs in the pandemic or self-isolated voluntarily).
- I refrained from conducting group interviews bringing together individuals from different households or work places, to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection between participants.
- I gave all participants who wanted to participate in the research projects the option to participate via phone or WhatsApp, covering their costs for the calls through transferring phone credit.
- I conducted interviews as much as possible outdoors or in large spaces. I wore my face mask to reduce the risk of spreading the virus in case I had contracted it and was asymptomatic.
- I agreed with an Ethiopian colleague, with whom I have collaborated on various projects since 2015, for him to revert to desk research until further notice. I conducted the interviews for our projects, given that I had medical insurance in Europe while he did not.
- Research assistance under way when the pandemic struck, was compensated according to prior agreements, irrespective of individuals’ ability to conclude the work during the sanitary state of emergency.
Research and the Everyday Life During the Covid-19 Pandemic in Addis Ababa
Had I not been able to continue fieldwork and instead reverted to distance and digital data collection practices, it is very unlikely that I would have been able to understand how individuals and communities have made sense of and dealt with Covid-19 in Ethiopia’s capital. The first official case in Ethiopia was only diagnosed in March and while Europe and the United States were establishing travel bans and fighting the spread of the pandemic with all means, life continued pretty much business as usual in Addis in early spring 2020. We watched the pandemic unfold following international news, unable to fully grasp its impact and waiting with a mixture of fear and resignation for it to strike in Ethiopia. Despite very slow rising numbers in Ethiopia, a state of emergency was declared in April to fight the spread of the pandemic. The government anticipated that it would not be able to deal with a public health crisis of an extent resembling those in Europe and the United States and took measures before the outbreak had properly started. However, contrary to the lockdowns put in place in most places in the Global North and China, measures adopted to fight the pandemic focused on reducing the spread of the virus while allowing life to continue as much as possible. As the majority of the population in the country depend on daily income for survival, a general lockdown would most likely have triggered food shortages and limited people’s ability to meet their basic needs, with the most vulnerable being hit first and worst.
Life in Ethiopia’s capital has been continuing at a reduced pace during the pandemic. Very few individuals can work from home for longer periods of time. Many are forced to go out, use public transport and frequent crowded public places to secure their livelihoods. Only a small minority of Addis Ababans have the means to adopt Covid-19 prevention measures that resemble those accessible to most individuals living in the Global North. Nevertheless, many individuals have reduced their social interactions as much as possible and spend more time at home. Focus is being put on trying to protect the household members most at risk for serious health consequences from a Covid-19 infection. Largescale public health campaigns launched to fight the pandemic have helped raise awareness and have been coupled with formal punishment for non-compliance to government rules, providing incentives for people to adopt Covid-19 safety measures. Since July, life for many Addis Ababans has reached a ‘new normal’ with Covid, safety measures having been internalised. Masks have become a new clothing item, with new models and styles emerging. Queuing rules at shops are silently respected and disrespect punished by social shaming. People going to churches and food/drinking places are often seated at a distance from each other and the blue plastic barrels that function as hand washing stations have become part of Addis Ababa’s new urban architecture. Ethiotel, the only telephone provider in Ethiopia, has switched the call signal to a Covid-19 prevention announcement, reminding telephone users about the pandemic and safety measures every time they make a call. At different levels of the society, households have been trying to prevent infections with Covid-19 to the best of their abilities, adopting the precautions they can afford and make sense for them given their own individual circumstances.
While life continues, the global economic downturn has heavily impacted Ethiopia’s economy. Despite government efforts to mitigate impacts, many households are struggling to meet their daily needs after months of hardship. Moreover, the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic intersect with the effects of heavy floods in parts of the country and political turmoil, leaving an increasing number of households in precarious situations. The state of emergency declared to fight the pandemic, has slowed down the implementation of political reforms under way since 2018 and the postponing of the national elections as a result of the pandemic further jeopardises the process. Public service provision has been negatively affected due to many government offices operating at reduced staff capacity and state–society relationships are becoming increasingly tense. Analysing how the pandemic intersects with and affects economic, political and social developments in Ethiopia is important to understand how people make sense of and deal with the pandemic and how negative impacts can be mitigated.
Addressing Research Ethics and Covid-19 in Development Studies
Conducting research in development studies during the Covid-19 pandemic poses both ethical and practical challenges. At the same time, there is a need to conduct policy relevant research that analyses how the pandemic has affected developing countries and how people understand and cope with it. Therefore, the question is how Northern development studies scholars can continue conducting research given the restrictive travel policies of countries and universities and in an ethical manner without outsourcing risks related to fieldwork to Southern collaborators.
While travel policies differ quite significantly between universities and countries in the Global North, many universities have banned travel all together due to the pandemic, while others only allow travel to ‘low risk Covid-19 zones’. However, most zones in the Global South are considered so-called ‘high risk Covid-19 zones’ because of their low testing capacity, relatively unrecorded spread of the virus and low quality of the healthcare systems. To discuss the impact of universities’ travel policies and develop travel guidelines suitable for development studies research under the pandemic, beginning a dialogue with universities is key.
In the short term, given existing travel policies, for primary data collection, many Northern researchers will need to rely even more heavily on North-South research collaborations. While this poses countless challenges, it also provides opportunities to reflect on the existing inequalities in research collaborations between researchers located in the Global North and South. Bringing up issues such as insurance for Southern collaborators, salaries that reflect actually incurred risks and questioning practices such as naming collaborators in footnotes instead of offering credit where credit is due through co-authorship, are just some points on a long agenda for addressing existing inequalities in development studies research.
Existing ethics guidelines for how to conduct research with human participants in the Global South need adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic. Is it for example sufficient to have research being guided by the Covid-19 prevention regulations in the countries under study, or do those have to be combined with additional protocols? How can researchers ensure that research related risks for research participants and collaborators have been reduced to the extent possible and beyond the immediate and visible interactions within the project? How can universities ensure the continued remuneration of Southern collaborators and assistants where work must be discontinued because of the pandemic, given that those individuals often depend on the income to secure their livelihoods? Ethics guidelines will always need to be adapted to the specific research contexts, but basic protocols for research under the pandemic need to be developed.
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