Blog post

Pandemic and the WELLMIG Research Team

A young woman participating in an online business call on her computer.

The WELLMIG team members are reflecting on the effects of the pandemic on our own lives as researchers.

Caught in a foreign land

When the pandemic started, Izabella was in Washington DC on a Fulbright scholarship conducting research on the access to healthcare of recent European immigrants in the area. She says:

“The pandemic completely changed my working, social, and family life. I was no longer able to use the wonderful Georgetown University’s library or work in the Healey Family Student Center by the huge windows overlooking the Potomac river. Contacts with prospective respondents vanished. My visit as a guest lecturer to the University of Alabama was cancelled. Any travel, including planned trips to the Big Apple and to Philadelphia was no longer possible.”

“There was also insecurity about travelling back to Poland. All these made the stay more stressful. Yet, there were also nice, unexpected developments: more contacts with people on-line, more caring about others, examples of community support, and discoveries of local nature trails and parks. It was a very special time.”

Pandemic and field research

The pandemic halted travel, especially international travel, and impacted those of us who planned to do field research. Izabella had to postpone travel to Turkey, and Elzbieta was stuck in Washington DC and couldn’t spend any time in Poland in 2020.

Following his academic friends and colleagues on social media, Marek noticed how travel restrictions and lockdowns hindered their research schedules and activities. However, at least initially, some things stayed the same. As he reflected:

“In anthropology, the pandemic did not impact the methods of conducting research. After all, anthropologists have done fieldwork in places where crises caused by violence, war, economic turbulences or climate genocide are not exceptional. Anthropologists are often exposed to infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and others. Medical anthropologists even study the impact of infectious diseases on communities, as it was in the case of the recent Ebola outbreak (ebola-anthropology.net).”

“Although the anthropological field has been transformed since Malinowski, and it is no longer a simple geographical place (the farther, the better), which bounds cultures and societies, anthropological knowledge production continues to be ethnography-based with the embodied experiences, observation, participation, and reflexivity playing pivotal roles.”

This last observation, of course, points to a huge impact of the pandemic: the physical presence which underpins ethnographic fieldwork has not been possible. “In many cases, Marek summed up, the scale of the pandemic made it impossible to travel and practice ethnography. It has definitely hindered the research endeavors, but it did not change the methodology in anthropology. Rather, the pandemic showed that there’s a problem with the rigid funding schemes”.

COVID and funding schemes

When the pandemic hit, Marek finished his field research and started planning a new book, quickly noticing the effects of the pandemic on funding schemes. He wrote:

“The pandemic has highlighted problems with grant systems and their inflexibilities. As if milestones, deliverables, and timetables were more important than human lives. At least in the initial stages of the pandemic, it seemed that many researchers were more worried about the financial consequences of not “delivering on time” than about their own and research participants’ health. This absurd situation shows how bureaucratic measures control, discipline, and punish scientific endeavors. Many researchers therefore rushed online in order to conduct interviews. This was a way of dealing with the imposed restrictions and project uncertainties.”

“In my opinion, the pandemic should not be a time spent on research, but rather a time to stop and reflect on the current predicaments. It was a time to be ethical and contact the research participants not to collect data, but simply to ask them how they are coping and do they need any help. A conversation, not an interview, was needed during the pandemic… But a comforting chat is not what the grant funder wants.”

Temporary employment, soft money, and the need to provide for one’s livelihood

While some of the team members have stable faculty positions at their respective universities, some of us work on ‘soft money’ and/or have temporary positions. Aslaug, our wonderful doctoral student worried quite a bit about the end of her contract and the need to finalize her dissertation. She says:

“Being a temporary employee and a PhD candidate, the deadline of my submission and end of contract, and consequently end of salary, was getting closer day by day, which made this period even more stressful. I had also gotten a scholarship to spend a couple of months as a visiting researcher in two different institutions overseas, but this opportunity was also cancelled due to the pandemic.”

Cancelling the final conference, but finding new ways to disseminate research findings

Marie Louise, our project leader, writes:

“The pandemic hit just as we had started planning our final conference, and compelled us to cancel. We decided to go broader and share our findings in a variety of ways. We have created podcasts in different languages and video abstracts of some of our articles. We are also hosting a panel on health worker migration at the key conference for migration research in Europe, IMISCOE (imiscoe.org), this summer – a huge online event – as well as a webinar for a few invited scholars in June. And we have been making pretty good use of this, our project website or blog.”

“Among other topics, we have written about some aspects of the impact of the pandemic on international nurse migration and on nurses from Sweden, Poland, and the Philippines working in Norway – and their families.”

“For me personally, it has been an uphill battle as I also have HR responsibilities for a research department at NOVA. The pandemic made that part of my job very time-consuming, giving me less time for my own WELLMIG research.”

Work-life balance and the pandemic

In WELLMIG, we studied work-life balance as experienced by the Filipino, Polish, and Swedish nurses. We also paid attention to our own ways of balancing family and social lives with the demands of the research project. Marie Louise says:

“Work-life balance used to be something that I managed by working at the office, not at home. That could mean long days at the office, but it still felt like a balance between two separate parts of my life. These days, I am working from my bedroom and find that I need to invent a new kind of boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘life.’ Spending 16-18 hours in the same room five days a week could drive anyone up the wall.”

“I find myself sitting still a lot more – there are no corridors to trot along, no colleagues to randomly chat with or doors to knock on to ask a quick question. So, I sit, only virtually trotting, chatting, and knocking. My newly invented boundaries are designed to counteract the adverse effect of all this sitting on my mind and body: I walk ‘to work’, and I walk ‘back home’. Both walks start and end at home but provide a break between two different modes of being, some fresh air, a resetting of the self. As an anthropologist, I know the importance of ritual to all human life (including my own) and the walks are very much just that (salient.org).”

Most of the WELLMIG team members have always worked from home, at least a couple of days a week, but as Aslaug remarked, choosing to work from home and being forced to work from home are two very different things. As the pandemic hit Norway, Aslaug and her partner had to find time and space to work from home while performing the tasks of school and kindergarten teachers. Just before the pandemic hit, they had also started to renovate their basement and were now literally living and working at a construction site.

Not having a home office was also problematic for some of our team members, especially those with school age children. Marta remarked:

“During the time when our children had virtual schooling from home, an over-crowded house and the need to move between makeshift working spaces posed a real challenge, both mentally and physically.”

Teaching

Some of us also teach on top of doing research. Elzbieta bemoaned the need to convert all of her intimate seminars to Zoom classes. She had to learn new pedagogies overnight. Marta writes:

“Giving guest lectures, my experience has been surprisingly positive. Students have been very forthcoming in engaging virtually although I am a guest lecturer they don’t know. Normally, I would spend some time chatting with students before the lecture and in the breaks. Now, this space is not there. I have found that basic polling tools– to activate students, and to sensitize them to each other’s experiences and reflections – has worked very well. The chat function has also worked well to create a dialogue. Students’ resilience in the pandemic is impressive – and curiosity is a powerful thing!”

On productivity

Many academics, especially women (journals.sagepub.com), have experienced unprecedented challenges to scholarly productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gender, race, and parenthood (frontiersin.com) have proven to be the variables that most affected academic productivity during the pandemic. Marta remarked:

“Reflecting on my own experiences and comments made by friends and colleagues around the world, productivity varies depending on whether one has a home office or needs to share space with other family members. But there are also more subjective aspects, where our personalities and preferred modes of work make a huge impact. The pandemic highlighted to me how important it is to respect and create space for the many different ways, in which academics work and thrive, and to continue to question what productivity means, and how we might think about measuring productivity, which in itself is extremely challenging.”

Despite the challenges, our team managed to produce several publications that were initiated and/or completed while we were on lockdown in far-flung countries, from WELLMIG as well as other projects.

The silver lining

While the pandemic has adversely affected our professional and personal lives, the new circumstances also brought some positives. Aslaug summarized it as follows:

“While I’ve missed all the things that I used to take for granted, being forced to live life more slowly also has its positive sides. Prior to the pandemic, we were juggling a hectic schedule with loads of afternoon activities. As all these activities have closed down for months, the afternoons and weekends have become less hectic and we’ve spent more time together as a family.

Escaping into non-academic activities

We do not live for research and teaching only. Hobbies and fun activities are important too, especially during trying times. Marie Louise has taken to hiking in the beautiful forests around Oslo (wikipedia.org), and has walked parts of the Refugee Trail (visitgreateroslo.com), which follows trails to Sweden used during WWII. Elzbieta escaped into the world of K-dramas. She wrote in one of her previous blogs:

“Without fieldwork, the anthropologist in me felt like a fish out of water. I started looking for a substitute that would bring me closer to a foreign culture that I knew very little about. This search brought me to K-dramas and the discovery of the Hallyu wave! I went down a rabbit hole…” You can follow Elzbieta’s adventures with Korean cinematography and literature on her Tumblr blog (tumblr.com).