Beyond Lockdown: Research in Suspense?
A common feature in Corona times: empty desks at Uni Bayreuth
I took up the Bayreuth Academy fellowship after a highly engaging 4-month stay at the Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa (MIASA), University of Ghana, Accra. Hence, I had anticipated the Academy environment would offer the platform for me to shift focus from one research perspective to another. Being on the ground pre-lockdown, we witnessed some of the interesting events by the Academy with vibrant participation of Fellows and Bayreuth based scholars. Among others were the joint weekly lunch cum discussion sessions, numerous colloquia, and lively informal Fellows chat on academic exchange. However, by mid-February, our informal chat changed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 cases and the potentially disastrous consequences should outbreaks occur in Africa. In early March, there were signals of an immanent lockdown in Germany so our informal talks turned to personal concerns as we discussed emergency travel plans for Fellows. Given my prior experience in Bayreuth, I decided to continue with the fellowship so I didn’t make any travel plans to Ghana. Lockdown happened on March 16 but most Fellows had already returned to their home countries. Immediately in Bayreuth, the void was very raw and direct.
In less than a week, the social and academic effects of the pandemic and consequent lockdowns had become apparent. Beyond Ghana, I had to stay in touch, on a daily basis, with family members in other German cities as well as in North America in order to be sure they were doing well and keeping safe. Though mentally and emotionally draining, I couldn’t forgo this key obligation! Discussions with family members in Ghana focused on the elderly and ‘at-risk’ family members such as my mother. We were equally concerned that the country’s healthcare system could become overwhelmed as cases of infected persons began to rise. Yet, there was something fascinating in the talks. Having keenly followed and reflected on international and national socio-political discussions with regard to lived realities of minority groups in the context of COVID-19 infections , I was constantly on edge for being so far away from home during a major health crisis. Ironically, my siblings would implied I was somewhat ‘privileged’ to be outside of Ghana in the heat of the pandemic. I still struggle to reconcile the different expectations with my personal concerns. Fortunately in Ghana, the local containment measures have, so far, prevented the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed, despite rising cases of COVID-19 infected persons.
Academically, access to the office space was very restricted. Neither was direct exchange with colleagues possible. These restrictions made it difficult for me to respect fixed timelines. Nonetheless, unimpeded access to online academic resources of the University of Bayreuth somewhat mitigated the actual impact of the pandemic on academic output. Indeed, on May 7, I was able to deliver my Fellow lecture online via zoom, where I spoke to, and interacted with, a sizeable audience. One could argue that the devastating health crises carries some ‘latent gains’ including investment in digital infrastructure. This ensured Academy Fellows and hosts kept in touch from different locations in Germany and abroad. The flipside, however, reveals an apparent digital divide. Some Africa-based colleagues who tried to participate actively in the online discussions often had difficulty with sustained internet connectivity.
Post-Lockdown: what happens to research?
After scrambling to implement COVID-19 containment measures, many countries worldwide have started to relax public health measures in order to bring some normality back in daily life. However, these relaxations have occurred simultaneously with the impositions of new conditions that include the creation of so-called ‘safe list’ and ‘risk areas’ for defined geographical locations. These post-lockdown measures have dire consequences for both daily life and professional activities. Since I don’t shy away from fieldwork, the new measures have come as a severe blow to me. Besides increasing the risk to researchers, assistants and research participants, the new measures have perhaps strengthened employers, funders and risk assessment regimes to adapt their interest to specific research agendas. This shift comes at great expense to the field of Africa studies, where interest in extended fieldwork has shifted profoundly. Cheeseman et al. (2017: 2) note that:
“with the exception of anthropology, it is now far less clear that to be a good Africanist is to be a good fieldworker […] these changes are partially attributable to new technologies and greater funding available to researchers, along with changing fashions within academia […] the pressure to adopt new and more ambitious methodologies […] has generated a strong professional incentive to pursue methodological innovation.”
Notwithstanding the new trend, I feel strongly about fieldwork because I can be where the action takes place but also follow the course of action and enact roles played by the different actors. In that sense, fieldwork offers the possibility to make mistakes and learn from them (Cramer et al. 2015). This unique experience never fades away; neither is it passed-on from one researcher to another. Hence, empirical field research requires us to constantly strive for balance between staying in the field and mitigating risks.
Research risks and suspense
Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, risk assessment for empirical research in most universities was already biased against fieldwork in Africa (Piccolino and Franklin 2019). The current global health crises has only come to exacerbate that bias. Field research risks are well known and range from risks in areas of conflict or so-called ‘zones of danger’ (Peter and Strazzari 2017) through areas with active health emergency, to threats from rogue state machinery. These risks constantly put researchers and funders under pressure. Given the current social distancing rules and COVID-19 hygiene protocols, field researchers face the problem of diminished trust from participants and lack of interest in the research altogether.
Therefore, while new measures would seem to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on academic activities, the challenge to fieldwork remains largely intact. Travel restrictions internationally and locally continue amid varying requirements for negative COVID-19 tests. And the strong push for COVID-19 immunity certificates and tests (see Eichenberger et al. 2020) would certainly foster discriminatory border practices. Crucially, even when travel is permitted, foreign researchers may be viewed negatively as responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, already commenced fieldwork activities would remain in limbo. My already commenced fieldwork on councillor-MP relations in Ghana has been suspended indefinitely following real and perceived risks to both respondents and field assistants. In fact, some research assistants in Ghana’s parliament – who were administering questionnaires and conducting interviews – have become infected together with respondents. Research assistants currently work from home and are not permitted within the premises of the parliament (Daily Guide Network 2020, July 11).
Reacting to the suspense: online-based research response
Planned fieldtrips face unavoidable delays due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions. Most project teams are adapting to innovative research techniques including online-based research. For our recently commenced comparative research project on Ghana and Rwanda, we have turned to online-based discussions of municipal governments’ reactions and agency in implementing public health protocols (see Stroh et al. 2020). This approach is far from perfect: internet access, online presence and the contents put online are key challenges for both local officials and ordinary citizens. Language poses another challenge, at least, in Rwanda where Kinyarwanda is the widely used language. Still, online-based research offers us the best possible strategy to study how the local authorities and the public are reacting to threats from the COVID-19 pandemic. These reactions also offer the chance for us to compare decision-making strategies in different local contexts.
 See for example
Cheeseman, N., Death, C., and Whitfield, L. (2017). Notes on researching Africa. African Affairs (Virtual issue on Research Notes), 1–5. doi:10.1093/afraf/adx005
Cramer C., Johnston, D., Oya, C., and Sender, J. (2015). Mistakes, crises, and research independence: The perils of fieldwork as a form of evidence. African Affairs, 115(458), 145–160. doi:10.1093/afraf/adv067
Daily Guide Network. (2020, July 11). Parliament won’t shut down. https://dailyguidenetwork.com/parliament-wont-shut-down/
Eichenberger, R., Hegselmann, R., Savage, D. A., Stadelmann, D., and Torgler, B. (2020). Certified Coronavirus immunity as a resource and strategy to cope with pandemic costs. Kyklos, 73: 464– 474. doi:10.1111/kykl.12227.
Peter, M., and Strazzari, F. (2017). Securitisation of research: Fieldwork under new restrictions in Darfur and Mali. Third World Quarterly, 38(7), 1531–1550. doi:10.1080/01436597.2016.1256766
Piccolino, G., and Franklin, S. (2019). The unintended consequences of risk assessment regimes: How risk adversity at European universities is affecting African studies. Africa Spectrum, 54(3), 268–281. doi:10.1177/0002039719898904
Stroh, A., Neubert, D., and Sabbi, M. (2020). ‘In the shadows of autonomy’: Decentralization, municipal decision-makers and local contexts in Ghana and Rwanda. A new project and new challenges. International Sociological Association|RC09 Newsletter N° 01-2020 (Special Issue: Pandemic Dairies, pp. 15–16). https://rc09socialtransformations.org/newsletter/
Matthew Sabbi is Research Associate, African Politics and Development Policy, University of Bayreuth. He was a Fellow at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies from January to June 2020.