Coping with Covid-19

by Dina Falten

While the Covid-19 pandemic is taking its toll on all of us we specifically asked how the Corona virus has changed the research of some BIGSAS Junior Fellows.

Of course we remember physical meetings, workshops and get-togethers (check out the last one in February) but it all seems quite far away. Yes – some institutions are trying to move back to ‘normal’, but what we’ve known as ‘normal’ has changed significantly. How many of you have used Skype again, after years of neglect, or tried their luck with Zoom and other online meeting tools? How many of you had to put their research on hold because traveling – especially by airplane – is suddenly and still off the table? It is a trying time for those of you, who scheduled a field trip and are not able to travel. It is a trying time for those of you, who are ‘stuck’ in their research country and are unable to return to Germany. The Covid-19 pandemic pushes higher education online, favouring the global elite and those who have access to all the important resources. It pushes on-the-ground research, face-to-face meetings and other physical interactions off the surface. 

Cancelled trips, conferences, summer schools

Junior Fellow Shaden Kamel had to cut her field trip short. She adds: “Consequently, this will impact me from attending a conference, as it depended on my fieldwork”. It is indeed the case that one event oftentimes affects another, hence one missing piece can lead to an unfinished puzzle. Many of you have to overthink their time schedule. Kamel was also unable to attend the summer school she was interested in, so new events have to take place soon. 

Lena Naumann planned a trip to Nigeria to conduct interviews for her thesis. These interviews are very important for her, because some of them are with contemporary witnesses with whom she has already spoken briefly, but further information is still missing. She says: “Even if I could travel, these people are still in the middle of a lockdown. This pandemic is very problematic for them, because most of them are artists. These are very challenging times”.

Positive sides?

Aside from all the research one conducts in the field, interviews need to be listened to, chapters need to be written, articles need to be read… Kamel states: “I would say the only positive impact of this period is that it allowed me to focus more on writing”. Another Junior Fellow, who is still in Ghana where his research takes place, overcame certain challenges by being even more ambitious. John Ebotui Yajalin says: “In my case, the data collection was halted when the government imposed a partial lockdown of the two main cities Accra and Kumasi where my survey was taken place. Even though I was frustrated, the lockdown period gave me ample time to transcribe my interviews and enter my data into SPSS. Eventually, when the lockdown was lifted, I continued but had it tough arranging interviews with officials. In the end, I completed the task”.

A pandemic like this urges us all to be more creative, resilient and ambitious as the Status Quo is challenged in many ways. What are your strategies?

Defending in times of a pandemic?

Yes, it is possible! Since June, BIGSAS is able to conduct defences again, after putting them on hold for some weeks. Unfortunately, our Junior Fellows had to defend in front of committee members only and no additional guests were allowed. Still, defences have to take place in camera. This saddens especially those of you, who submitted their thesis and are now waiting for their defence. Usually, lots of friends, colleagues and family members attend the disputations. After a successful examination, drinks, food and congratulations await – something that now only takes place in small groups (and of course with a distance). 

Alžběta Šváblová was the first Junior Fellow who defended her PhD project in camera. She shares her experience: “Defending in the times of Covid-19 was very much marked by the insecurity of the whole situation for me. My first scheduled date was cancelled, since the social distancing regulations were still very strict. The preparation for the disputation was a bit complicated due to my family situation – schools were closed, so we had to home-school our daughter. This, together with my husband working in a system-relevant job, meant that I had very limited time for my work. The defence itself, however, went well. Small technical problems were promptly managed and the two hours passed in no time. And although I imagined it in a different way, I will always remember my defence as a part of this extraordinary time. I am grateful that it could be organised and really appreciate all the support from my committee members and BIGSAS administration team”.

Covid-19 the change-maker? From one institution to a system of higher education

We are not arguing the significance of the Corona virus for the health of humans all over the world. In regards to education, with an emphasis on higher education, one can observe different opinions seeing the pandemic as a threat or even as a chance. As already stated in the beginning, the negative consequences are fewer face-to-face meetings, conferences or alike. Due to travel restrictions the “international flow of talent and knowledge is disrupted” (Edwin Naidu, 06 April 2020). The limitations in education are now more present than ever: less offline delivery of knowledge and information adds to the privilege of those who are already able to access information (digitally) in their daily routine. Yes, everything tries to move online. Universities had to come up with fast ideas on how to educate their students during lockdowns. University staff were oftentimes overwhelmed by this new art of teaching – suddenly digital (il)literacy becomes a widely discussed topic. But even with enough media literacy the access to resources remains problematic. In the case of Kenya for example, 90% of all users access the internet via their mobile phone. 1 GB of data however costs currently 4,90US$ (Jackline Nyerere, 29 April 2020). This tells us one thing: data is too expensive. Many countries invested in online learning before the pandemic, such as Somalia, where education also takes place virtually and via apps (Africa Press Office, 28 April 2020).

ICTs (information and communication technology) are even part of the SDGs (sustainable development goals). Goal 4 aims for quality education, however Covid-19 reverses the (little) progress that has been made in the past years. Education needs to be delivered. Otherwise, we will observe forms of protest and upheavals (see Wondwosen Tamrat & Damtew Teferra, 23 April 2020). An open letter from African intellectuals demands a reform of public policy to favour the African population, to finally change curricula and invest in a new political idea of Africa itself (see various co-signatories, 16 April 2020). The pandemic offers yet another insight in a capitalist, elitist world system, where the rich (in form of different capital) exploit the poor. Marketisation and austerity will add to a new dependency. Universities lose a lot of their ‘income’, due to less enrolled students and funds by the government, organisations or individuals. Let’s not forget all the contract workers who lost their job (see Laura Czerniewicz, 30 April 2020).

The pandemic changes the idea of (higher) education completely. Is moving online a threat or a chance? How did you cope with your research? How are those of you who work at universities coping and what is the way forward?


Selected articles

Ditch COVID-19 equaliser myth and Eurocentric curriculum – 03 July 2020 by Nic Mitchell (University World News – Global)

Internet speeds hamper campuses in developing world during crisis – 29 June 2020 by Matthew Reisz (Times Higher Education)

Covid-19 reveals digital divide as Africa struggles with distance learning – 15 June 2020 by Issa Sikiti Da Silva (TRT World)

COVID-19 highlights need for self-reliance in Africa – 07 May 2020 by Sharon Dell (University World News – Africa Edition; Botswana)

The struggle to save and remake public higher education – 30 April 2020 by Laura Czerniewicz (University World News – Africa Edition; South Africa)

Kenya’s university students and lecturers face huge challenges moving online – 29 April 2020 by Jackline Nyerere (The Conversation)

Coronavirus: Somalia’s COVID-19 response: a shift to online learning in Somali higher education – 28 April 2020 by Africa Press Office (CNBCAfrica)

COVID-19 – Civility and unity are needed, not racism – 23 April 2020 by Wondwosen Tamrat and Damtew Teferra (University World News – Africa Edition)

COVID-19: An open letter from African intellectuals to Africa’s leaders – 16 April 2020b by various co-signatories (African Arguments)

The shift to online learning calls for global cooperation – 16 April 2020a by Wondwosen Tamrat and Damtew Teferra (University World News – Africa Edition)

After COVID-19 – ‘Nothing will be the same’ – 06 April 2020 by Edwin Naidu (University World News – Africa Edition; South Africa)

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2 Responses

  1. 22/07/2020

    […] Denn obwohl die ausgebildete Kuratorin ihre praktische Arbeit in kulturellen und kulturwissenschaftlichen Betrieben liebt, wollte sie doch “in den wissenschaftlichen Diskurs einsteigen”. Somit war der Weg in die Promotion geebnet. Für die Junior Fellow ist es wichtig herauszufinden, was die Kunstbewegung zur Kanonbildung von Nigerianischer modernen Kunst beiträgt. Des Weiteren steht Susanne Wenger, die bereits 1950 nach Nigeria auswanderte und dort als Künstlerin fungierte, bei der Bewegung sehr stark im Vordergrund. Die Österreicherin hat nämlich nicht nur die dortige Kunstbewegung gegründet, sondern sich auch als Yoruba-Priesterin initiieren lassen. Lenas Ergriffenheit, Ambition und Ehrgeiz dem wissenschaftlichen Diskurs etwas beizutragen und auch von der Biografie einer einzelnen Person wegzulenken, kann schließlich zur Geschichtsschreibung nigerianischer Kunst beitragen. Obwohl die Doktorandin noch im Februar 2020 in Nigeria war, um den Nachlass von Ulli Beier zu übergeben, zog die Covid-19 Pandemie nicht spurlos an ihr vorbei. Was sie eigentlich geplant hätte lest ihr hier.  […]

  2. 01/09/2020

    […] times like these”… how often have we heard this sentence lately and used it ourselves? Covid-19 is interfering with a great deal of research. Travelling is only possible for some tourists. Many African countries remain closed, and there is […]

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