Coronavirus impacts: a difficult year ahead?

Initial research findings from the ‘Livelihood impacts of coping with Coronavirus in rural Africa’ (CwC) project

Date: 22 July 2020

Authors: CwC team

Portuguese version / versão em português

Photo credit: Andrew Kingman, 2020

As we reported in our first project blog post, we have been setting up our research project on ‘Livelihood impacts of Coping with Covid-19 in rural Africa’ (CwC). We have been following principles including building on established partnerships, co-creating knowledge based on equity, engaging in open, constructive dialogue, and trying our best, but accepting errors are inevitable in these testing times.

Our research is a collaboration between the Universities of Edinburgh, Eduardo Mondlane, Manchester, Sheffield and the MICAIA foundation. In CwC, we aim to co-create knowledge around the livelihood impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown, and the coping strategies employed in contexts of diverse vulnerabilities, building on phone interviews with diverse panels of community members in several sites.

As Covid brings an additional danger of silencing and invisibilising these important voices, we strive to create spaces for these voices to be heard despite all of the ethical and methodological metamorphoses related to Covid-19.

Initial research findings: varied effects of Covid-19

As our research leads and assistants have begun engaging with the members of our panel through phone interviews, some interesting initial findings have emerged. So far, it is clear that the effects of the lock down and travel restrictions associated with Covid are immensely varied depending on people’s life situations.

The flow of information about the virus and the restrictions varies enormously: while posters have been put up in most communities and people are wearing masks even in the remotest of settings, access to specific information about what Covid is and what risks it entails depends on a variety of factors.

According to our initial findings, proximity to the village’s centre plays a role, with those living closer to the centre generally better informed. Age and gender also shape access to information. Elderly widows are generally the last to receive information, as they are more marginalised in information distribution networks: for instance, they often will find out only with delay or in retrospect about a village meeting taking place.

There is also a sense among members of our panel that Covid is already changing their lives significantly, though differently. Governments have instituted restrictions on travel; gatherings are only being permitted in groups of max. 10 people, and there is a requirement to wear masks.

Consequently, trade has reduced, leaving many members of our panel to anticipate a difficult year: many have noticed they have fewer opportunities than in other years to sell their produce and goods to traders.

The prices our panellists obtain are lower, while food prices in shops have increased, with both range of products offered and opening times more limited. In some communities, Covid restrictions have coincided with an abiding lack of rain, restricting agricultural production and thus creating partly significant food insecurity.

Based on feedback from panel members and research partners, a key question which we added to our interview questionnaire focuses on people’s experience of risk. Some occupations, eg traders or shop owners, will invariably put people at higher risk of Covid, requiring an exploration of their specific coping strategies.

How to involve vulnerable groups through phone interviews?

On the methodological side, a surprising finding is that involving vulnerable members of the communities so far has not been as difficult as anticipated. Many interviewees, even those who did not previously own phones, are accustomed to speaking to family members and friends who live far away on a phone they have borrowed from relatives or neighbours.

In combination with our interviewers’ skills, this has allowed interviewees to make a smooth transition to answering interview questions on the phone. Especially some elderly panel members have relished the opportunity to share their wisdom and life experience with appreciative listeners.

An additional element that has come out is that while we were initially told that some of the remote areas had no cell phone signal, there were specific locations within these communities where they could engage with the outside world. They even suggested what days and times and what cell phones would be most appropriate for community interviews. For instance, smart phones were not suitable because they had poor reception.

Co-creating benefits

In addition to the knowledge being co-created, there are very palpable material benefits for local communities from the research project. Firstly, our questionnaire allows our panel members to ask questions or add answers that they find important. As many have done all over the world in recent months, our panel members also asked how exactly they would know if someone was infected with coronavirus, and how they can protect themselves. Panel members appreciated the opportunity to receive answers to these vital questions in local languages.

Secondly, the sewing machines which some communities asked for allowed the next-day production of 150 masks for children and staff who were due to return to school from the end of June. The sewing machines have benefited both members of the community and a local prison who are engaging in planting, metal work as well as sewing.

We look forward to learning more through and from working together and with our participants, and sharing our findings as the project continues to evolve.