Doing fieldwork in the pandemic time
Along with the temporary closure of our office and a move to working remotely, the Covid-19 pandemic also forced us to pause on-going and new fieldwork, both in Indonesia and in other countries like Bangladesh and Lebanon. Since the initial pause in March, we kept monitoring the situation and of course wondering when we might be able to get back to the field? Like most organisations no doubt, these first few months were challenging, particularly as we enjoy spending time with people in the field.
Part of our initial response to the Covid situation was the creation of health and safety guidelines for our staff. Although getting back to the field was very uncertain in the first few months, these guidelines paved the way for creating an expanded set of guidelines that we could use in the case that fieldwork became possible again. And while our specialty may be immersions, with the pandemic we focused our preparations on methods that would be more feasible such as Participatory Focus Group Discussions, Informal Interviews, and Human-Centred Design workshops.
These are just some of the guidelines that researchers and teams must consider before heading to the field, and then after returning:
Make sure they feel comfortable to go to the field
Within a week of travel, get a Covid swab test (PCR) to make sure we are in a good health to meet people in the field, and so that we can present people with assurance of our health status as needed
Follow the national or local government regulations on health check documents and travel regulations, such as downloading the Indonesian health ministry’s health tracking app.
Mandatory use of a mask and face shield during air travel, and bringing Empatika’s Covid health kit which includes replacement masks and filters, hand sanitizer refills, tissue, and vitamin supplements
Following return from the field, self-quarantine before visiting the office or other public spaces, for at least 5 days with a negative PCR test or 10 days with two non-reactive Covid Rapid Tests.
As travel regulations began to relax starting in July 2020 and some areas of Indonesia continued to have a relatively lower number of confirmed Covid cases, our team had an opportunity to re-start fieldwork. The first experience was a visit to Nusa Tenggara Barat for our study on post-disaster cash assistance. For this fieldwork (along with subsequent studies), we introduced some safety protocols that must be observed during the fieldwork. This includes:
Mandatory use of a face mask during interactions with study participants.
Be aware of our daily health condition and inform other team members about any concerns. Help monitor the health of fellow team members in the field including taking their temperature before any study activities.
For group discussions/workshops, the venue should be open-air or providing good ventilation. Researchers should prepare clean water and hand-soap and ask everyone to wash their hands before and after the activities. Researchers should do body temperature checks for all participants along with each other and provide COVID-19 health promotion information. Participants should be provided with a Covid pack that includes a face mask, filters, and sanitizer.. Participants will be asked to use face masks during the discussion and reminded about the importance of washing hands and maintaining a safe distance from others as much as possible. In addition to gaining consent, researchers will check that participants are comfortable joining the activities and explain about the testing the team did before travel.
For informal interviews or conversations, researchers should bring extra face masks and sanitizer which can be given to the participant if they don’t have one.
Although full of precautions, the fieldwork was still an exciting and enjoyable process. We were also surprised at how well people received us in the communities, despite coming from Jakarta. We’d like to think that some of the precautions we took helped people feel comfortable, and the connections that our team made back when we did the baseline survey in these communities in early March no doubt helped as well.
Following this initial fieldwork experience along with another small study on women entrepreneurship, our team had a reflection together to discuss what went well, what went less well, and about anything we should do differently for upcoming studies. One of the most challenging aspects for us as researchers was using a mask during group discussions. First, we have to talk a lot louder. It can also be hard to hear the participants sometimes, and you miss the cues that you would normally be able to get from people’s facial expressions. To help with hearing people, we found that it helped for the two facilitators to be spread out more, with each closer to one side of the group.
We also discussed how we need to be extra cautious about the activities taking too long as people may start to tire quicker or feel a little suffocated wearing a mask for a long time. The venue selection is also really important: open-air spaces are nice, but finding one without a lot of background noise is also really important and promotes a better process. This means that if possible, our team needs to be able to visit the venue first to check the space.
One of the interesting reflections during our discussion was how in some cases the extra distance between participants actually helped to reduce any unnecessary discussion between participants. We also found that visuals were still really helpful to make the interactions more engaging for participants.
All in all, it has been a very fruitful learning experience for our team and we will continue to update our guidelines as needed as the situation changes. Although many of us still miss being able to live directly with people in the field, we are adjusting and adapting to this 'new' situation and are open to other approaches during this pandemic time. Another study we recently started will be experimenting with remote qualitative research. We look forward to sharing some of the experiences from that process soon!
Want to hear directly from some of our researchers about their first experience doing fieldwork during this pandemic time? Have a look at this short clip from the field.