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Using Digital Ethnography in International Covid-19 Research

Updated: Apr 2, 2021


Mahnoor Mahar, Researcher, Habib University, Pakistan


This blog from our partners in Pakistan details a FACT project event based around the use of digital ethnographies in international research.


On Friday, 5 March 2021, Habib University and FACT Pakistan (Family and Community in the time of COVID-19: Pakistan study) hosted the first webinar of the International speakers series with the FACT research teams from Pakistan, South Africa and Singapore. FACT is a multi-method longitudinal comparative study, which is carried out in collaboration with University College London (UCL) and an international network of 10 countries including the three that presented their research during the webinar. The study aims to explore how individuals and households respond to risks to their well-being in the time of a pandemic.

Researchers Dr Sadiyya Haffejee and Thandi Simelane from the University of Johannesburg along with Dr Vineeta Sinha and Pooja Nair B. from the National University of Singapore joined Dr Shama Dossa (Associate Professor at Habib University), Ayesha Khan (Director at the Collective for Social Science Research) and Laila Rajani (moderator) of the FACT Pakistan team to share their research and emerging findings.


Dr Sadiyya Haffeejee spoke about how the pandemic has unfolded in the context of South Africa. In March 2020, the first case of Covid-19 was detected in South Africa, soon after a complete national lockdown was mandated. This resulted in the closure of all but the most essential services. The lockdown while mostly supported was also met with significant concerns regarding the welfare of children and families living in vulnerable contexts. South Africa’s history of colonialism and apartheid has left a legacy of deep inequality. This inequality manifests in amongst others high levels of poverty and poor access to resources, like education, health and social services and poor service delivery. The government attempted to address concerns raised by introducing a number of temporary social and economic relief measures. In spite of this, latest research shows that rates of hunger have increased significantly. At this stage, South Africa is emerging from the second wave of the virus and there appears to be a significant drop in the number of cases since.


FACT South Africa’s study sample consists of 21 families and the team used WhatsApp and telephone interviews to collect the data. Power outages and lack of consistent internet connectivity posed some challenges in using digital means of data collection. At the same time, using WhatsApp helped foster a new level of trust, with participants reaching out and sharing updates with researchers often without being prompted to do so. In terms of framework, the team is using a multi-systemic resilience framework to analyse the data collected. This framework situates the individual within broader systems and acknowledges the interconnectedness between the individual, the family, the community and society. The focus is both on what risks individuals are exposed to as well as what resources are available to enable resilience.


There are many emerging parallels between South Africa and Pakistan in terms of challenges faced by people during the pandemic. For example, access to the internet and electricity, the “double-disasters” i.e. urban flooding in Karachi and child hunger in South Africa, the community and faith-based organisations covering up in aid where the government and institutions failed. Dr Shama Dossa from the Pakistan team explained how the pandemic unfolded in the country: no long-term strict lockdown or enforcement of SOPs even now as we stand at the cusp of the third wave. While the vaccine rollout has begun for frontline workers and senior citizens, Dr Shama Dossa pointed out very few seniors have signed up for the vaccine.


The sample for the Pakistan study consists of 27 families within Karachi. The team used multiple approaches to recruit the sample including personal networks, Facebook and Google forms and is currently using WhatsApp and telephonic calls for data collection. Throughout the year, the FACT Pakistan team sent visual prompts to the participants through WhatsApp and participants were allowed to use text, voice notes videos or photographs to respond. Currently, the team is preparing for closing interviews whilst moving forward with data analysis using the qualitative data software ATLAS.ti.

The researchers from the Pakistan team are using an intersectional feminist lens, which allows analysing the data through various interconnected issues - and how the issues affect different people according to the individual complexities i.e. class, gender, socio-economic backgrounds. Some of the findings and themes emerging are gender and the following of SOPs, the division of domestic labour, mental and emotional health and well-being, public trust around institutions, the class-based division of the disease and the belief that it is an upper-class disease.


There was a stark contrast in how Singapore has been dealing with the pandemic and thus, the research and findings differ. Dr Vineeta Sinha spoke about the current environment where the majority of the COVID cases in Singapore are of the migrant workers living in dormitories. Singapore went into a lockdown called the Circuit breaker on 7th of April 2020 and it lasted till the 1st of June 2020. Subsequently, through phases, the country began lowering restrictions. Currently, the country is in the third phase whilst the vaccine rolls outs in a systematic and organised manner.


The Singapore government has provided a lot of support to its citizens having allocated a budget to deal with the pandemic. Singapore government provided solidarity packages to vulnerable citizens, frontline workers in the fields of medicine and healthcare, transport etc. In addition to this, they are paying up to 80% of salaries to help recent graduates make their way into the job market and are providing support to members belonging to the arts and culture and sports industry. Furthermore, the country launched a nation healthcare hotline in April 2020 - the hotline has managed thousands of calls to help those who have been in need of emotional support.


The FACT Singapore team has used family as a key analysis framework - as a point of entry. Their sample consists of 28 families - includes nuclear families, the elderly living alone or with caregivers, single-parent families and intergenerational families. They wished to study how the pandemic has impacted different types of families, what the perceptions and experiences of support are and if the vulnerable members of society have access to them to understand the effectiveness of social policies. Dr Sinha said that the initial findings indicate gender as a key theme from an analysis point of view. The team used Zoom, WhatsApp, Google forms and face-to-face interviews for data collection. Zoom is widely used in Singapore - there were fewer limitations as Singapore does not face the same connectivity issues as South Africa and Karachi.


The webinar was very informative in helping understand how the pandemic has unfolded in different countries across the globe, the issues different citizens have had to face and the differences and similarities as the world goes through this collective struggle. The teams will continue conducting research and analysing the data generated, building upon the frameworks and methodologies to present comprehensive studies on their respective countries as part of FACT.



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