When Covid-19 impacts your PhD fieldwork

Published on 1 July 2020

Image of Ruyu Lin

Ruyu Lin

Doctoral Researcher

Ru-Yu Lin is a PhD researcher exploring local responses to environmental change in the Eastern Himalayas. In March her fieldwork was suddenly interrupted by Covid-19 and she had to rethink her approach. In this blog post, she shares her experiences and hope with others who are in a similar position.

I was running a backyard focus group discussion in a village in Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India when I received a phone call advising me to leave because of coronavirus. It was a Monpa village above the Tawang Chu river. ‘Mon’ means south in Tibetan, or south dense forest; ‘pa’ means people. Given that the village is remote, and the state border with Assam was already sealed, I had to remain.

The information about Covid-19 first reached the village by phone, and immediately created panic. Non-nationals were seen as possible carriers of the ‘deadly’ virus. For the village where I stayed, the nearest district hospital is 45 minutes’ drive away and there is only one community health centre nearby. The village tsorgens (leaders) quickly called a meeting and decided to shut down all hotels and restaurants, not letting any tourists stop by.

Sheltered by the ‘vulnerable’

A family in the village happened to have invited me to live with them for a couple of days. Thus, I informed the police about the change of my residence. The next day, the police came to visit me, registered my travel histories, and let the whole village know that I was not a threat to their health. Soon, the central Indian government declared a nationwide lockdown, which meant my stay with this family extended throughout the 70 days lockdown period.

It was a difficult decision to stay with this family because I was not sure whether I was or would be a burden to them. I bought as much food for the whole family as I could. For my research, there was no better place to stay. They taught me how they live, shared their feelings about environmental change, guided me to speak their language, fed me, and brought me joy by enjoying the time we spent together. They also directed me to appropriate resources to support my research, and showed me how things work in the local area. Every time the lockdown got extended, I asked my hosts whether I could stay on. They reassured me again and again; my tears were running. The grandmother of the house said I reminded her of their family members who are abroad and alone. And I found strength in reciprocating their support.

‘Aunts and sisters from my host family process foraged food in Kharsa village’. © Ru-Yu Lin

Impacts on local residents

Lockdown and the risks of Covid-19 infection and its possible outcomes, heightened emotions and solidified surveillance – particularly of those who were connected to life outside of the village. Stigma associated with quarantine created dissonance in the community. My research participants mostly cannot type or write newspaper-level Hindi/English, and the electricity and mobile networks are intermittent or absent. This impeded information flows and exacerbated vulnerabilities. The government Covid-19 awareness posters were of little use. Information was mainly disseminated by village tsorgens and the district radio.

Everyone in the village suddenly had a lot more free-time when lockdown started, and in many ways it was a blessing for me. The herder showed me his nomad huts; the women explained cultivation steps and old trade stories; friends shared their stories of protest against the dam. While foraging for food we spoke about highway constructions, plants, water, and army camps; we tasted the terrain and exchanged our thoughts and feelings. This was not planned in my fieldwork proposal, but informed my research with a richness of data.

Shifting to physically distanced research methods

Covid-19 meant I had to fundamentally change my research methods to ensure physical distancing for the safety of research participants. I adapted my methods to replace face-to-face interviews, and become more sensitive to the emotional language of the people I was studying. I lamented losing the opportunity of participatory observation and the chance to see and judge with my own eyes about the environment.

I designed an online survey which was followed by phone interviews on a volunteer basis. Arunachalee friends went through multiple revisions with me. I began the survey to test its credibility and avoid sampling bias. I thought more about democratizing evidence collection to retrieve the sovereignty that was once lost, to see if people would make a different choice, and how much they are willing to change. I imagined a new and ‘non-White’ climate action – a kind of action that goes beyond control, fear, accusational tones, lovely faces – to commit to nature(s), not civilization(s).

I began experimenting with digital tools for verifying the presumed gap between different perspectives.

Digital methods, ethics and trade-offs

With digital methods, we mostly receive filtered information, or use a surveillant instrument. Substituting human eyes with cameras requires us to deepen discussions about ethics, privacy and security. This goes far beyond ensuring consent forms are in place. These discussions apply equally when we decide to continue face-to-face fieldwork. For example, who should be held accountable if virus transmission unfortunately happened? Can this be in the arena of mutual consent? Can we manage the risks by changing the way we organise responsibilities and operationalise moral procedures? Have we thought through all research backgrounds when setting the protocols?

Moving to second-hand data or remote methods, also calls for us to pay close attention to the ways in which we subsequently interpret the reliability and legitimacy of the data. Further, it will inevitably affect the style of our research writings. For example, there may potentially be some loss of detail for the readers who wish to intimate themselves with the people more than the figures. But another genre will be created, and this transition will be part of the history to reflect and inform future crisis.

Coping with stress

 Stress, due to increasing uncertainty and a reluctance to change my research plans, was hard to cope when I was alone in the field. I worried about my loved ones and myself, especially when scrolling the news. To cope, I wrote diaries with snap shots continuously for 70 days to inform my family and friends that I was doing okay; I let go of my heart and put my mind into the mundane. Stability can be recreated from within, so I also kept my old hobbies going. I walked a lot and I cooked all manner of food for my host family, despite the shortage of ingredients.

My supervisors comforted me and shared their own research struggles, in thoughtful distance, in introspective self-coverage. Their support exceeded the weight of ‘institutional care’.

Lesson from Covid-19: communicating risks

If there is any good thing to emerge from this pandemic, it could be our ability to rethink risks, security, uncertainty and improvising communications and deeper thoughts about ethics. These are vital skills for researchers as we will inevitably continue to live with viruses.

On the day I left my host family’s village, we parted in tears. The bond between us was made much deeper due to our lockdown together. I hope the bonding is for life, what is your gift from the Covid time?


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