COVID-19: Should Europe embrace frugality?

COVID-19: Should Europe embrace frugality?

The Covid-19 pandemic, emerging in the aftermath of the recent global financial crisis, could potentially further shake the confidence that Europeans have in their institutions. Rigid and slow decision-making processes ...

‘I cannot understand your question’: challenges and opportunities of including persons with disabilities in participatory evaluation

‘I cannot understand your question’: challenges and opportunities of including persons with disabilities in participatory evaluation

Participatory evaluation has been praised for engaging vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities (PwD). However, the inclusion of this group can be challenging and even self-defeating if carried out ...

COVID-19 | Remote research in times of COVID-19: considerations, techniques, and risks by Rodrigo Mena and Dorothea Hilhorst

The current COVID-19 pandemic is preventing many scholars and students, especially those in the social sciences, from visiting identified research sites and interacting with the groups or actors important for their research. Many researchers now plan to shift to forms of remote research where data are gathered without meeting research participants in person. While COVID-19 compels this trend, even before the pandemic scholars have had to conduct remote research when fieldwork is considered risky or difficult, for example in high-conflict or remote contexts. Our research of the interaction of disasters and conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen shows what to keep in mind when conducting remote research.

Remote research refers to research where the principal researcher is not engaging in face-to-face data gathering processes ‘on the ground’. This means that other people can gather data on behalf of the researcher in research locations, or that interviews with research participants are conducted by phone or using the Internet. Whereas quantitative research often uses enumerators to survey, qualitative research usually relies on face-to-face interviews or focus-group discussions that now need to be organized and conducted from a distance. Research shows that it is indeed possible to talk to participants using interfaces like telephones or social media platforms and to obtain rich and qualitative data through these, mostly internet-based, forms of communication[1]. However, the use of technology also needs to be approached with caution and in a reflective manner, as discussed in another blog.

Fundamentals and ethics for sound research still apply

No matter how hard one tries, remote research creates additional challenges, and some research questions beg so much nuance and depth that they better not be considered in remote research. Data gathered by means of remote research is also difficult to triangulate and validate, as a multitude of data sources not considered at the onset of the data collection process may present themselves in the field. Researchers may also come closer to understanding complex dynamics when immersed in the communities they are studying. Otherwise, many other routes can be explored to validate data. Think newspaper articles, GIS or satellite images, secondary sources, consulting other researchers familiar with the area, among others.

Research ethics can also be complicated when research is conducted remotely. Whether data are collected through video-based conversations or by using a third person to conduct the interview, it is important to consider whether informed consent genuinely has been obtained and how confidentiality can be guaranteed. In case of sensitive issues, face-to-face interaction allows one to read participants’ body language to detect whether the interview creates discomfort. It also allows researchers to build a trust relationship with research participants. How can researchers make sure that enough checks and balances support remote interviewing processes to avoid interviews creating anxiety or discomfort?

Finally, we need to think about how to convey the message that the research is in the interest of the research participants. Without the engagement and personal attention of a real encounter, will participants feel that they benefit from the research? Researchers often seek to ‘leave something behind’—stories, information, advice, or perhaps volunteer work for a community or NGO—to ‘give back’ to the research participants. Remote research requires questioning ways in which to move beyond the mere extraction of information that so clearly signals the asymmetric power relations between researchers and researched actors.

Some do’s and don’ts

When these complicated questions have been addressed, the question remains how to do remote research. Here are some pointers that we developed out of our experiences of researching the interaction of disasters and high-intensity conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen:

  • Some research questions cannot be addressed remotely, hence, the research design and questions needed to be adapted for remote research.
  • Ethical board approval is just as important for remote research as it is for fieldwork and cannot be skipped.
  • In order to enrich and triangulate findings, we need to be innovative. For our research, interviews were also conducted with people that recently migrated from the areas of interest to a place where they could be reached physically. Similarly, aid workers active in the area were interviewed during stop-overs at airports.
  • In order to create a broad and in-depth range of data, a multiplicity of methods besides interviews were used. These included digital surveys, the analysis of photographs taken by the participant and voice messages from participants describing places and situations, and many other creative options.
  • To remotely understand the context, relevant news, and everyday life in research areas, talking to people who know the area and reading the news about those places were key. This information allowed for better interviews and better data analysis.
  • Just like in normal interviews, body language is important for creating trust and diminishing anxiety. Sitting too close to your camera can make your presence intimidating, whereas keeping some distance and not filling the screen allows the participants to see your hand movements and background. Participants will see everything, also when you stop being attentive because you want to check some information on your phone, for example. It is therefore important to be mindful of your actions and to try to remain focused and engaged.
  • Rules for asking questions, such as using active language, asking questions one by one, trying to phrase questions and reword them in understandable language, apply even more in remote research.

Remote research is possible, but as students and researchers have to adapt to remote research, so do universities, research institutions, supervisors, and donors. Budget lines for travel may be reduced, but it may be important to provide funds for better computers, webcams, and video-based solutions.

Remote research can also be seen as an opportunity to do research differently, especially in an era where the need for travel must constantly be weighed up against the harm of adding to emissions related to climate change. We can now think of expanding the geographies of our research and reaching people in regions and places that were not considered possible before. For many students and researchers with limited budgets, it also can be a means to reduce the costs of research. However, as mentioned before, all these benefits and the use of remote research need to be weighed against adverse risks.

Which other relevant considerations would you like to share? Please feel free to leave a comment with tips, tricks or concerns.

[1] Bolt N and Tulathimutte T (2016) Remote Research. Rosenfeld Media. Available from: (accessed 1 November 2016). No page.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

R. Mena (2019)Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and AiO-PhD at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in places affected by high-intensity conflict, with South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen as main cases. He has experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia. Twitter: @romenaf

Foto kleiner formaatDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.


COVID-19 | “Stay safe” conversations that illuminate the glass walls between her and me by Mausumi Chetia

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Disasters are lived in different ways by different classes of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the differential impacts of disasters lie in the blurred spaces between populations fortunate enough to ...

Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

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COVID-19 | Radio silence during the crisis: how our imperial gaze threatens to sharpen global divides by Lize Swartz and Josephine Valeske

The spread of coronavirus COVID-19 across the world has been accompanied by an explosion of activity on social media as people have tried to make sense of the implications of the virus and the speed of change. But the story that is emerging amid the chaos has failed to draw attention to the effect of the virus on low-income groups, making visible a radio silence on the plight of those in the Global South in particular. We need to break the silence to ensure the implementation of inclusive responses and a widening of the narrative beyond that of the privileged, write Lize Swartz and Josephine Valeske.

Following the progression of the coronavirus on news and social media from within the Netherlands, we have witnessed a worrying parallel development: a focus on the immediate economic effects of the crisis, including financial losses; reports of panic buying that have fueled further panic and anxiety; and the effects of quarantining on personal life. In the higher income households of Europe, social distancing and isolation are no more than an inconvenience for many, and one of the biggest concerns among young adults seems to be the boredom that will hit when being forced to stay at home for two weeks. For others it will be the lack of freedom of movement, the inability to travel for leisure and business or do things for pleasure.

Thus, two sides of the virus have become highlighted: either inconvenience through social distancing leading to eventual recovery, or death of the vulnerable as an impact of the virus itself. The ‘middle’—the physical suffering the virus will bring, rooted in pervasive structural socio-economic inequalities, has not sufficiently been discussed. The pandemic uncovers the effects of decades of neoliberalism undermining the welfare and healthcare systems all across the world. But in the Global South as well as in intentionally forgotten places in the Global North like the refugee camp Moria on Lesbos, the suffering will assume another dimension altogether.

There is still hope that low-income countries can avoid the pandemic, with Africa having put travel bans on Europe, China, and the US in a powerful twist of the discriminatory global visa regime. But if the coronavirus hits impoverished countries with high levels of social inequality and inadequate public health systems that still suffer the effects of (neo-)colonialism, that inequality will increase. For the vulnerable, the coronavirus will not be just an inconvenience, leading to loneliness or a temporary loss of income—it will likely cause untold suffering. The virus may result in the death of the physically vulnerable, including undernourished children and adults, or those with tuberculosis or Aids.

While it is true that the elderly across all income groups are experiencing the highest mortality rates, it is likely that young people in low-income groups will experience higher mortality than those that are wealthy, as is the case with influenza. A study by the University of Edinburgh found that the level of access to healthcare is associated with <65 year-olds’ influenza mortality rates. Deaths are not just numbers, but real experiences resulting in trauma and emotional distress.

Furthermore, often it is the suffering before possible death that strikes us hardest. Wealthier residents in the Global South, as many people in the Global North, will be able to self-isolate by withdrawing into their own lives, surrounded by high walls—properties where they can live in relative comfort for a few weeks, waiting for the storm to pass. Their place of safety is others’ place of danger. In informal settlements, isolation is not possible, where toilets and taps, where and if they are available, are shared. It is here where several people are crowded into a single room, sharing beds, utensils, space. It is here where diseases including tuberculosis spread more quickly. The suffering of those who cannot distance themselves socially, whose houses are not necessarily homes, or who do not have a house with a door and four walls, needs to be emphasized. The suffering of those who usually wander the streets during the day and now have to be confined into what might become a death trap.

When the time for isolation comes, not only will it be impossible in densely populated areas, it will become devastating. Many workers survive from their daily wage, living hand to mouth. Those without a choice will have to go to work, and the virus will spread. The dependence on public transport, particularly buses and trains, in developing countries should not be negated. Wearing a mask won’t help if you’re crowded into a small space. And as horrible as working with a fever and breathing troubles sounds, it might still be better than what will happen if the governments declare shutdown and sentence the extremely poor to go hungry for days or even weeks.

In addition, school feeding programmes for many children provide the only nutritious meal that they get each day—or the only meal they may get. Staying away from school can be devastating for families who cannot afford to feed their children, both in the Global South as also in places like New York City, which hosts 114,000 homeless children. And impoverished people who cannot afford private healthcare will have to wait in queues in clinics and at hospitals for free medicine—to the extent that they are accessible or proximate—increasing their risk of exposure to sickness.

Perhaps the worst of it all, however, is that for many low-income groups in the Global South, the physical effects of the pandemic and the sudden confrontation with death by illness are not at all as novel as they are for us in the rich countries. Death and suffering from communicable diseases is much more common in the Global South than in the North (see figure below). The daily death count of “poor people’s diseases” such as tuberculosis and malaria are at present much higher than those of the coronavirus, but these illnesses, often easier to fight than the novel virus, are usually forgotten―as are their victims.

corona graph


The coronavirus is threatening to sharpen divides both intra- and internationally, not only revealing differences in adaptive capacity based primarily on socio-economic circumstances that affect individual responses to the virus, but also highlighting ignorance regarding the constant high level of exposure of vulnerable groups to communicable diseases. The very silence about these inequalities perpetuates them. Strong responses are sorely needed, including ongoing pressure to ensure that interventions are inclusive and target vulnerable groups first instead of focusing on the business sector.

Moreover, individuals need to break the silence by directing their gaze outward, away from their own societies, to reshape the narrative of the crisis by driving the focus away from the privileged who continue to dominate sense-making processes and who are dampening or silencing the voices of others in the process. And finally, it should not be forgotten that what wealthy societies are facing now has been the daily reality for many around the world, and that our imperial gaze often prevents us from recognizing this.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


About the authors:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.


Josephine Valeske holds a MA degree in development studies from the ISS. She is currently an intern at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam and the blog manager of the ISS Blog Bliss. Her reseach interests lie in the areas of aid, corporate accountability, and social and economic justice.