The Impact of COVID on the DRIVE Project

Dr Roda Madziva, University of Nottingham

The practical and ethical challenges of conducting research during the COVID-19 pandemic have been well documented. We encountered various challenges as part of The British Academy funded DRIVE project, undertaken in Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Below we document some of the challenges encountered.

Restriction on international travel

The DRIVE project, which is made up of a team of international researchers (three from the UK and three from Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe) was originally designed to allow team members to get together at different points and in the different countries during the life course of the project.  However, with the emergence of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, cross-border mobility was identified as a significant factor in COVID-19 transmission, leading to the adoption of restrictive travel measures, including the banning of international travel. These restrictions had negative impacts on the delivery of the DRIVE project. Thus, as a result of COVID-19, all project planning and team meetings were done virtually, via Microsoft Teams.

Local movement restrictions and social distancing measures

In line with decolonisation migration scholarship that promotes the localisation of knowledge production in the context of North–South research partnerships, we ensured that data collection was undertaken by locally based researchers in all three countries who themselves are co-investigators and Research Fellows on the project. 

As part of its research design and methodological approach, the DRIVE project was designed to allow face to face interaction with a range of actors including policy makers, education practitioners, NGO workers, and disabled refugee students and their families. However, with the introduction of Covid-19 lockdown measures in the three research contexts, gaining access to some of the actors proved to be extremely difficult. While telephone and video conferencing interviews, text-based chats and e-surveys were identified as alternative means for collecting primary data during the COVID-19 period, in our research, virtual data collection could only be done with participants who had access to digital technologies, particularly key stakeholders. In this way, COVID-19 exposed the issue of digital exclusion, which is a reality for refugee children and their families.

In all three contexts, research teams found it extremely difficult to remotely reach disabled refugee children and their families as they lacked digital literacy or access to digital technologies, due to their economic and social status. Even where families had access to mobile phones, they lacked the financial resources to purchase mobile data. Furthermore, language barriers made conducting research with refugee families via mobile phones impossible.

The strengths and weaknesses of working in partnership with non-academic partners

 The DRIVE project involved working in partnership with civic organisations and practitioners with close links to refugee children and their families. Working with non-academic partners during the COVID pandemic proved very useful as it provided access to families, especially in settlements (particularly in Uganda and Zimbabwe). However, the downside was that, this slightly unbalanced what our researchers were hearing as they were engaging with families that had been identified and were being supported. With the easing of movement restrictions, teams were able to gain access to refugee families that were not being supported, allowing them to gain meaningful engagement with children who were not in school and with different lived experiences and needs.

However, researchers in all three contexts observed that some families were sceptical as well as being worried about the possibility of contracting the COVID-19 virus through physical engagement with researchers. So ethically, our teams had to take special considerations and precautions for the safety of research participants and themselves. This included observing COVID-19 guidelines on social distancing in each of the three countries, making use of protective clothing and conducting interview meetings in open spaces.

In spite of all the challenges highlighted, teams were extremely innovative and managed to collect very rich data. 

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