Pointers for fieldwork in COVID times and sudden lockdown situations.

Anuja Datye

It has been more than a year since COVID started and a year since the first lockdown.

Most of us now know what to do to avoid getting Covid infection or steps to take if unfortunately, you do get infected. A lot of us may be restarting fieldwork or may already be on field as travel has eased up.  But, before you leave for your field sites, there is a need to update yourself with the requirements of fieldwork in the ‘new normal’. While sudden nation-wide lockdowns of 2020 may not repeat themselves, local-level lockdowns may continue for some time as can be seen in the recent developments in across our country. Under such situations, here are some pointers from our experiences while conducting fieldwork during the lockdown. 

1.Meet the local administration (Collector/ Tehsildar) and local police (SP or head of nearest police station) before embarking on field work

One of the first steps before starting on field work is to meet the local administration including the Collector at district level and the Tehsildar at the taluka level. In any emergency situation, they should be aware that there is a certain researcher or a team of researchers working in the area. This also applies to meeting local police, especially when you are working in sensitive areas.

Do demand/ insist for letters giving permission to work in the area from the local administration or in the least take an inward stamp on the letters you provide them. This is a small but a very critical step to ease things in case of any emergencies.

Administrative officers can issue discretionary letters, permissions to conduct time-sensitive field work even during lockdowns. In cases of medical or security emergencies they can potentially help out in organising any immediate assistance. This can only be possible if you build the social capital, and get to know the officers closely before emergency conditions arise.

2.Local PHC

Firstly, do get tested for Covid before you leave for fieldwork. Visit the Public Health Centre at your field site and meet the head doctor. If they insist on test reports or re-testing, do so!

Many villagers, thanks to their increased awareness and precautionary measures, are keeping away outsiders. Having a test report, and the ability to assure people that you have met with local doctors, gotten necessary permissions will help you negotiate with local communities.

More than anything else, we do not want to take Covid to these areas. 

3. Local level permissions to operate

Before conducting work, as a matter of practice and ethics, we have always taken permission from local communities. This is increasingly important, even mandatory, that people are fully comfortable with our presence in the field sites. This means not only meeting the Sarpanchs /Gram Sevaks/Gram sabha executive committee members for permissions but also following any due process mandated by the villagers.

4. Field station/ rental agreements on site

Most of us establish field stations for long or short term. Short-term arrangements tend to be quick-fixes with minimum resources. However, in Covid times, ensure that even short-terms arrangements also have living conditions suited to changing seasons and/or changing duration of stay. If you have entered into written agreements/ formal agreements, make sure they are at least of six-month duration.

Ensure to buy an electric water heater, rice cooker or a stove with a small gas cylinder, even when ‘normally’ mess facilities may be available. Do not hesitate to spend on an all-season bedding gear. There could be a possibility that your one season stay extends into an unplanned next.

Ensure that field stations have enough space, security for field equipment and for maintaining sample collections.

5. Stock-up

Stock up on food. Even if you join mess facilities or take food from local connections, do stock-up when you reach the field site on basic long-lasting foods like rice, dal, oil, salt and sugar.  This will be useful in case you need to isolate or lockdowns enforce shutdown of public eateries.

Stock-up on cash! We are increasingly attuned to digital payments and ATMs in the cities. But, when on field, ensure that you have a safe space and access to sufficient cash.

Stock-up on data sheets: In general, take that little extra amount of data sheets, consumable field equipment, stationary, etc. What seems a burden while packing, will help you productively cover your extra field site days.

Stock-up on basic and personal medicines.

6. Logistics

Make local ‘independent’ transport arrangements: bicycle, two-wheeler, four-wheeler in case of larger teams.  

Enlist local contacts who own vehicles / rent vehicles in case of emergencies.

7. Fuel

While this situation may not occur again, access to fuel was seriously curbed during the early lockdowns. Stock-up at least 5-6 liters of fuel and maintain in safe conditions at your field station. Or, don’t hesitate to make that “arrangement” for access to fuel before-hand – through local tractor/truck owners.

8. Local support and network

Make friends. Spend that extra time before hand on field sites to really develop friendships locally. It is just the best for life in general, but also for life in emergencies.

9. Stay updated and have an exit plan

Stay updated and watchful about developments in the local region with respect to COVID.

Make an exit plan before you leave which can include;

  1. Readying/ ensuring finances for emergency travel by private vehicles, taking necessary permissions, etc.
  2. Readiness to travel to and stay over with relative/ friend/contact in the nearest safe space.
  3. Emergency contact person who can co-travel or come to your field site if you are in ill health or other such condition.

Carry letters from your research institute declaring your affiliations apart from your identification cards and Aadhar card.

10. COVID related care during field work

When hiring field staff, make sure to take them to the local PHC for a general health check-up. Ideally, if you have the funding, do get everyone on the team tested for Covid.

Conducting group discussions, meetings will be challenging in Covid times. If permitted, make sure to keep the group sizes small, follow social distancing and masks for all.

11.Team members

Ensure that your team members are mentally and logistically ready for ever-changing circumstances. 

About the Author

Anuja is a P.hD. student at ATREE, her research work is centered around issues related to forest rights.

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