Tag Archives: Reflections

Why research lockdown?

Lucy Pickering, a principal investigator on the project, shares her reflections on why research involving the effects of Covid-19 on marginalised groups is essential, with reference to some emerging findings.

In January 2020 reports began to come out of China of a new respiratory disease, a member of the coronavirus family that includes flu, SARS, MERS and the common cold. As a new disease no-one had immunity and no-one (yet) knew its effects.

It appeared at a particular point – that of Chinese New Year, and the mass movement of people across and in and out of China, as they visited friends and family to celebrate the new year became a key vector for transmission. More recent research suggests that this strange new coronavirus may not have in fact originated in China, and we may indeed never now pinpoint exactly where it came from or how it entered the human population, but what we did see was that close social contact was a key vector for transmission. Suddenly the thing that we as social scientists had spent years, sometimes decades, studying – the thing we believe is central to being human – was a site of danger. Sociality, mixing with others, even hugging became ‘risk factors’.

On 23 March 2020, the UK entered a then-three-week period of ‘lockdown’. We weren’t allowed to touch anyone outside of our household, or to socialise with them at all. New technologies came to the fore as many moved from seeing friends and family to using a range of online platforms to keep in touch. Online quiz nights were set up and so were many mutual aid groups. Neighbours dropped notes through letterboxes, new Facebook groups appeared and new forms of sociality and solidarity emerged. March 2020 was a time of simultaneous unprecedented isolation and unprecedented solidarity.

Yet the roll-out of these forms of connection and disconnection were not even. Those in shared homes could still get a hug from their co-dwellers, those living alone had to go months without physical contact. Those living in houses with gardens were able to enjoy an uncharacteristically hot April and many new Scots took up gardening. Those living in crowded accommodation were suddenly much less able to escape close confines. Some were able to spend time they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to with family, while others suddenly found themselves trapped in an unsafe environment from which there was even more limited respite. Some were able to take advantage of being furloughed to undertake projects such as learning a new language or a new skill, while others were left a radically reduced income, or no  income at all, and many others had to continue working in high risk sectors with often limited PPE and elevated transmission risk.

It can be tempting to think of a disease like Covid-19 as a great leveler, as an opportunity for us to reflect on how we are ‘all in it together’. What the Scotland in Lockdown project is showing is that we are all in it – but we are not all in it in the same ways, and we are not always in it together.

Going into, being in, coming out of lockdown and now, five and a half months later going back into lockdown in some places has affected people in many different ways, often affecting the already at-risk, already marginalised and already vulnerable the most. As organisations had to change their ways of working to keep their staff, volunteers and clients safe, the essential services that support people in all sorts of precarious positions were changed significantly, involving much less contact.

As is now becoming apparent from our research, this is having a profound effect on staff, with a majority reporting increases in stress and anxiety as a result of being worried about clients, who, in many cases are unable to access technology to stay in contact or who have fallen off the radar entirely. Added to this is the increased financial burden that many organisations are experiencing, with smaller groups (perhaps with only one or two paid staff) using their own limited resources to support the increased demand on their services caused by Covid-19.

It is essential, that we understand how Covid-19 has affected different people across Scotland. By focusing on four already marginalised groups who have been affected by lockdown in very different ways, this project is working to better understand this range of experience, but also identify the ways in which Covid responses have exacerbated – rather than levelled – existing inequalities. One finding that emerged as soon as interviews began was the level of shared experience between these groups, with health issues in particular affecting individuals from all the interviewee populations. This in turn has led us to reassess how we understand the effects of the pandemic, requiring us to develop a much more holistic concept of how the imposition of lockdown and other restrictions have most affected those who are already experiencing inequalities.

Through the Scotland in Lockdown project, we are amplifying the voices of marginalised people across Scotland, and celebrating the ways in which they have responded creatively to challenges as well as highlighting the challenges they have faced. By bringing these voices together we are helping to show how this period of lockdown has intensified inequalities and how individuals, families and organisations have responded creatively so that if we need to lockdown again, or again, we can do so better – with more understanding, more kindness, and with a better understanding of how to do it with more equality.

Lucy Pickering is co-principal investigator of the Scotland in Lockdown study.

Research, Interrupted: Rethinking research, relationships and responsibilities in the pandemic

Researcher Molly Gilmour shares her experience of having to stop her own research in Lebanon due to the pandemic lockdown, and how she is trying to apply, reflect on and develop the community-engaged principles of that work in the present study.

This research project is taking place at a time when a lot of our own research has been interrupted. The normal face to face interactions that enrich and have been fundamental to social research in social science is no longer possible for the foreseeable future. As researchers, we’re re-learning how to conduct the meaningful research with communities in different ways. For instance, how do we best coordinate a project of 25 researchers, across four different areas of study, when many teammates have never met one another? How do we create and sustain meaningful relationships when we can’t rely on familiar small-talk shared over teas and coffee?

In March I was two weeks into a ten-month participatory ethnography in Lebanon when the pandemic hit. I was working in partnership with an INGO and a local NGO conducting data collection for my PhD. My research asked, ‘how can community engagement methods be used to improve trust and enable more appropriate and effective humanitarian healthcare provision’. I was required to stop this work, I was told by my research partner that it was unsuitable for me to continue researching in the public hospital with refugee populations, and I have since taken up a role in the Scotland in Lockdown project.

Over the past five months, through attending trainings and webinars, I’ve been inspired to rethink and disrupt the ways that I research. I’ve been working through this difficult and messy process in the midst of a global pandemic and protests against systematic racism. I’ve been using these few months as a time to reflect and re-think how the current context relates to my roles, relationships and responsibilities in both academia and the humanitarian aid sector.

Rethinking interventions

The current context is challenging what it means to do research in a social setting as a social scientist, it’s challenging power dynamics and the traditional intervention styles of aid delivery and research. Now, large institutions who move people and things across borders have had to find new ways of working.

I was told by my University and my research partner, a large humanitarian medical aid NGO, that I had to pause my fieldwork. The current climate was not considered suitable for my participatory research design, methods or partnerships style. I had to find a new way of working. Importantly, it challenged and questioned my research partnerships and practises. It’s revealed underlying assumptions about what I considered valid knowledge; do I have to go there to ‘discover’ this knowledge?

Are there other ways I can establish research partnerships to conduct research more effectively and appropriately? As a critical race scholar, the crux of my argument is less international intervention, more localisation.

The issues which stem from international interventions are being hotly debated in the charity sector.  As a keynote speaker at a recent humanitarian medicine conference I attended, described: the aid sector has experienced a massive rupture of working practises due to this pandemic as people and resources are stuck behind borders. It’s led him and his colleagues to question their practises and they’re inevitably confronted with pertinent issues of systemic racism embedded in the sector, which is accused of having a ‘two-tier’ system divided by European staff and ‘local’ staff, as in the recent report on ‘Decolonising Aid: Again’. An article in The New Humanitarian quoted a defensive response from the head of Médecins Sans Frontières France who asserted that while there were “real discrimination problems” in MSF, the organisation had limited resources and should be advocating for its work in Afghanistan more than trying to resolve the “historical social and racial tensions shattering the American society”. Charity So White is part of a growing movement taking place across the UK and taking on stances like this to tackle the many ways in which racism operates within the UK charity sector.

I believe that this pause, the interruption of my PhD research, both weakens and questions the strength of the research partnerships in my research. I reflect on the multiple flights I have taken for one-week research visits to Uganda that harmed our planet. As someone who is employed at a UK institution whose reputation was made possible through the wealth derived from slavery, I question what role do UK Universities play in such unequal power dynamics, do we create our own two-tier systems of power through research partnerships? 

As much as this study is about understanding and addressing the challenges of refugees, we too need to remain vigilant about colonial practices of research. For instance, not assuming what we as often middle class, relatively secure researchers would find challenging about being destitute is how someone in this position would feel.

Re-orientate

As I re-orient, and virtually delve into this new research project, a project which neatly overlaps with my PhD, as a Research Assistant in the strand which explores the health and social impacts of COVID-19 measures for refugee and asylum seeking populations, I ask how can I connect with and conduct meaningful research through alternative means involving no travel or face-to-face contact?  

When I consider the multiple interviews that I’ll be conducting by phone in the coming weeks, I’m rethinking ‘what counts’ as research data. I’ve been trained to capture the more nuanced elements of interviews, such as the room’s atmosphere (room layout, scents and sounds) and the participant’s body language (toes tapping, nervous gestures).

Many researchers are switching to an intense use of the internet as a form of communication and method of research (as we are doing through interviews, focus groups and surveys). As a humanitarian researcher, I work in spaces of stark inequalities, at a time when food insecurity and health problems are being exacerbated. Can I find a way of partnering and researching in contexts with such colossal ‘digital divides’ from my flat-turned-office in Glasgow? Just as the humanitarian aid industry must be reflexive and held accountable to their positionality, academics must ensure that their approach to research is appropriate and ethical.

Molly Gilmour @MVGilmour (she/hers) is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow working on ‘How can we strengthen emergency healthcare for forced migrants situated on the edges of Europe?’ She is also part of the research team on the Scotland in Lockdown study, working in the stream on refugees and asylum seekers facing destitution.

The meanings and pressures of ‘rapid research’ on Covid-19

In this blog, co-PI Sarah Armstrong talks about the pressure, meanings of and need for ‘rapid’ social research on Covid-19: to respond to emergent funding, to inform the current response to the current pandemic, to study a phenomenon that is itself rapidly changing.

We learned about a call for rapid Covid-19 research in late March, just after the UK officially went into lockdown. In a single week, we pulled together a team of 18 investigators across four distinct research areas. We Zoomed our ideas about topics and methods in light of the new normal and organisations we might partner with, costed the work and distilled all this into a single (!) page application. After a successful result on the application, we moved forward, enlarging our team with a set of 17 partner organisations, and 7 RAs, most conducting their own doctoral research that was now stymied by lockdown.

I have never worked harder in my entire life, and can imagine my colleagues feel the same about this period. Looking back, I think two things provided a sense of motivation to get through it. First, throwing oneself into a major research project about Covid-19 turns out to be a really effective means of not having to think about Covid-19 in personal terms, and the upending of a whole way of life that was just beginning for all of us. Second, I know I speak for my colleagues in saying all of us felt that the encroaching shutdown would be tough enough for us, but would have profound consequences for people who already are positioned at the margin of society’s interest and attention.

  • In prison, lockdown triggered confinement of people in their cells up to 24 hours per day and stopping all visits of loved ones.
  • In homes across Scotland, people were being locked in with abusers, cut off from the normal routines that would provide respite and relief from isolating situations.
  • The limited services supporting those fleeing from unsafe home countries were being forced to close or restrict operations.
  • And, people living with disability or long-term health conditions found themselves at different points categorised as expendable or extremely vulnerable, and subject to greater restrictions and scrutiny of their movement.

At its heart, our project aims to give voice to the experiences of those who face particular hardships and challenges in getting through a global pandemic.

During April and May, we designed research tools that by June needed updating. As the most extreme phase of lockdown gave way gradually to allow access to more spaces and people, it became clear we needed also to include interview and survey questions about coming out of lockdown. We needed to be thinking about the Coronavirus response not as a sprint but a marathon – crisis funding was holding some things together; what will happen when people need help in September, October and onwards? How will people’s ability to weather a storm change when the storm coincides with winter and with the generosity of public spirit fraying?

These questions have stayed with us as we have worked through the nearly overwhelming logistics of carrying out 100+ interviews – thinking about the ethics and technology of using phones, WhatsApp, email, Zoom to talk to people at one of the toughest times of their and our lives.

Logistics have been frustrating and complex, and as with most research, the time taken to set things up is longer than anticipated, or at least hoped for. There has been added pressure given the fact that universities are not just studying, but also experiencing the pandemic. Colleagues without permanent contracts are exposed to even more anxiety and insecurity. University finances are being policed closely, to the extent that there can be challenges purchasing the equipment we need to do our work.

At the same time, delays to the research schedule have meant we are further along in the course of the pandemic, revealing new issues emerging and needing exploration. This has included positive as well as negative developments, and we are adopting an open mind to ways people may, at least in some ways, have flourished or learned adaptations point the way to better ways of doing things after the pandemic. Covid-19 is itself rapidly changing in terms of its distribution and incidence, and the response to it, including even the vocabulary of disease control. We are rapidly learning to adapt to the unstable circumstances we find ourselves in as researchers, and the meaning of ‘rapid research’ is evolving too.

What has become clear along the way is that social research is absolutely essential to understand how to get through a pandemic. The ways societies are organised, how they treat their least well off, how caring works and suffering is experienced, what contributions and needs are valued or invisible will all determine the effectiveness of medical and public health interventions. A sociological lens will help us employ and innovate concepts that allow us to understand the import of what is happening, situating and contextualising issues of power, marginalisation and crisis.

Ultimately, we hope the knowledge we produce with and alongside those at the front line, will make a positive difference in people’s lives.

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the University of Glasgow nor are they intended to represent the views of all working on this study.