Toward the end of 2019, the world was informed about the outbreak of a new pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, referred to as Covid-19. The earliest case of Covid-19 in my country of Rwanda was reported in March 2020, after which the government and the health authorities took steps to prevent its spread. This essay is based on my personal experience during this Covid-19 pandemic as a PhD student. I hope that my fellow PhD students can learn from my experiences during the pandemic, particularly about how to manage risks and develop strong coping strategies as they continue to conduct research during this period of great uncertainty.
As was common worldwide, the outbreak of Covid-19 in Rwanda forced the government to put in place restrictive and safety measures to reduce the risks of its spread and protect the health of its citizens. Among many policies and public health measures introduced were social distancing, which in most cases required people to stay indoors, hand washing, and wearing of facial masks.
Restrictions imposed on long-distance travel, travel within the country, and travel between communities reinforced social distancing. Sometimes, one needed to apply for a clearance permit from the police even for going to the local market or a small shop. In the beginning, when such measures were being implemented, it seemed as if life had come to a standstill. For me, the first lockdown was a rather difficult period characterized by complete restriction to my home. It forced me to personally invest in an extra office desk and create space at home to work from there, because going to the field or working from the public library was not easy. Though I was also ready to commence my six-month fieldwork, I could not travel from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda where I was based, to my fieldwork location in the eastern province and also not could travel to Stellenbosch in South Africa to work from the school campus. This was a big challenge to my studies. The main challenge was how to shift my mind from thinking about fieldwork and focus on other things associated with my thesis.
Regarding fieldwork, I had planned to conduct the exercise in three phases: before the annual genocide commemoration (Kwibuka), which starts on April 7th and ends on July 4th, during the mourning week of this commemoration which takes place between April 7th-13th, and after the 100 hundred days of commemoration between April to July each year. However, this was not possible since the entire country was under total lockdown. Commemoration events were also no longer possible because people were restricted to their homes observing Covid-19 protocols. People followed commemoration-related speeches and testimonies on radio and television. Consequently, one of my research activities aimed at asking young people about how they perceive the annual genocide commemoration events and rituals was not possible. This situation contributed to the re-working of my research methodology.
Furthermore, it was not possible to collect data using the internet or through electronic or communication devices. This is because most of the study respondents are poor and do not have access to computers or smartphones. In addition, due to the sensitivity of the topic under investigation, it requires face-to-face interactions and privacy, meaning conducting interviews would be quite a challenge.
Despite the challenges listed above, working on my doctoral dissertation during Covid-19 was still possible. I flexibly used the opportunity to rearrange my research priorities and revise my timelines. Some of the adjustments included networking and constant communication between myself and all of the people who are involved in my PhD program. For instance, I requested that the institutional Board Review of the University of Rwanda, to which I had applied for local ethics clearance, hold off on that authorization since starting fieldwork was not possible. Although they had communicated their approval to me through email, I still had to collect its hard copy. Requesting for a postponement of the authorization enabled me to save money that I would have spent on a future application for a renewal in the event of the first approval expiring during the lockdown.
Secondly, due to uncertainties about the date of resumption of my studies, I spent my time reading literature on resilience in order to help myself cope with the stressful period. This reinforced my ability to go back to some data I previously collected and contribute to a co-authored chapter (Maggie Zraly and Grace Kagoyire, 2021), on “Resilience and Ethics in Post-conflict settings: Kwihangana, living after genocide rape, and intergenerational Resilience in Post-genocide Rwanda” to a book titled Global Mental Health Ethics, published in 2021. Through reading the testimonies of survivors of genocidal rape in Rwanda and their descendants, I was further inspired to look ahead and focus on my doctoral dissertation, especially working on the literature review chapters, which needed my attention.
Another challenge faced during the Covid-19 lockdown was financial. However, my former acquaintances provided in-kind support by connecting me with community members and some other organizations that travel to my fieldwork location, thus I took this opportunity to occasionally go to the field for some interviews (mostly pilot) and meetings. Sometimes, when I got stuck in the course of writing my dissertation chapters then, or when I felt bored, I applied for travel clearance from the national police and traveled in vehicles provided by such organizations to access the field. This enabled me to sometimes meet community members in their communities, particularly those I call my “focal point,” to discuss my study with them. This helped me to at least accomplish the recruitment of potential study participants even when Covid-19 was at its peak.
Risks associated with conducting fieldwork during Covid-19 pandemic
Conducting fieldwork during the Covid-19 was possible to some extent, but complicated. In addition, this was only possible when there were no roadblocks between the provinces and districts or when a particular village in my study location (the smallest administrative entity in Rwanda with a population between 90-150 households) was not under lockdown. However, navigating the field was associated with some risks. Despite the fact that I had tried to respect restriction measures and had all of the necessary safety toolkits, I got infected in the early days when I started to conduct pilot fieldwork. Receiving a positive Covid-19 test result was a source of psychological distress, particularly out of fear of infecting members of my own family and after hearing news of the deaths from Covid-19 of some people I knew quite well. As a result, I was isolated inside my room for two weeks. Such feelings were also due to worrying over the attendant delays in my writing process. Even after recovering from Covid-19, I continue to experience its lingering effects such as fatigue, insomnia, as well as reduced concentration, which may last up to six months according to others who have recovered from the disease. Fortunately, the country is providing Covid-19 relief and I am among those who received it soon after recovering.
My personal experience during the pandemic made me re-evaluate the usefulness of networks, including the value and roles of study participants and focal points in every empirical research. What study participants bring is beyond what we are asking in our topic guides. They possess more knowledge than we usually think. The consultations with them have been the basis for re-shaping my fieldwork plan. I am so grateful for this. They also helped me rethink my priorities and apply greater reflexivity in my research. Adapting myself to each situation in terms of the ideal time and place to conduct interviews helped reduce my stress about having adequate data. It also helped me gain their trust, become more familiar with the slang young people use to describe their lived experiences, learn how they protect themselves, and increase my understanding of the everyday realities of life in rural areas. In addition, I learned that the research methodology section of my dissertation should be revised and updated in response to developments in the field.
Some self-care tips helped me to make progress with my work. These include some physical exercises every morning for at least 30 minutes for a relaxed body. I also joined a few people and formed a “writing and shut up” group, where I and some of my colleagues meet twice a week through Zoom and write for three hours. Each session is facilitated by one of us, with rotations. During each session, we write for 25 minutes, have a break of five minutes, and then continue in this way until three hours are over. This helps me to concentrate on my writing, feel more connected to groupmates, and make steady progress in my work.
It was also helpful that I constantly kept in touch with the PhD course coordinator with updates about any changes and challenges that I encountered and explained if I was unable to comply with the agreed timeline. I also decided that whenever I am not in the mood to work on the major parts of my project that require concentration, I can at least work on the layout of my thesis, check whether the referencing list is updated, or other small details. I also read my interviews, not to analyze them, but to be familiar with them and avoid thinking that I somehow wasted my time. This is also because what I learned most is that working on a thesis is not working hard all at once or within a short time, but doing what you can, even small things on daily basis. In order to take care of my mental health, I also sometimes consult a mental health professional or other PhD graduates, especially when I feel bad. However, this is not enough. Eating healthy foods/balanced diet and having some time to relax are also helpful.
Moreover, receiving the Next Gen research dissertation fellowship of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) provided much-needed support for my doctoral research. It enabled me to focus on my research and provided resources that enabled me to continue fieldwork and focus on data collection. With it, I was able to afford some equipment I needed so I could easily work from home. Also, the joint research methods workshops organized by the SSRC also helped me to learn things that I included in my research methodology and theoretical sections of my thesis in order to refine it. Now that the Covid-19 restrictions are being eased, and I have my peace of mind because I recovered and have the basics to facilitate my PhD journey, I look forward to achieving the goals of my fieldwork within the newly set timeline.