The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing significant changes to the ways in which we operate as global development academics and practitioners. This new context requires both creative research methods and a heightened sensitivity in how we work with individuals, households and communities. In this short piece, Alex Arnall, Mike Goodman and Sophie De Pauw reflect on discussions within the Global Development Research Division here at Reading.

The global coronavirus crisis has raised new issues relating to global development and brought old problems into new light. Existing inequalities in opportunities, power and voice have been highlighted, and are reflected by high infection and death rates in the poorest communities. In many countries, such inequalities are grounded in racialised inequalities, as evidenced by the international Black Lives Matter protests in the response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which are shaking up local, national and global politics. The crisis has altered how we perceive certain professions, with previously ‘invisible’ roles such as health-care professionals, carers, delivery drivers, refuse collectors and supermarket staff now receiving more recognition as ‘key workers’, although it remains to be seen whether this shift in perceptions will bring about improved pay. We have seen how the restrictions on access to work (particularly work on zero-hour contracts or in the informal economy), labour mobility and loss of remittances are having financial impacts in many communities around the world. There are also significant differences in people’s access to public and private spaces during protracted lockdown conditions, with major implications for family life, support networks, and mental health.

As global development researchers working across the social sciences, coronavirus is also bringing changes to our own professional practice. While these might seem minor in the face of the appalling loss of life and the wider economic crisis, the consequences of the pandemic are so far-reaching that it is impossible to carry out research without being affected by it or needing to take it into account in some way. Many researchers are working from home while home-schooling children and have had to reduce their research activities as a result. For those whose projects are reliant on overseas travel, their work has mostly been brought to a halt. Others who are able to continue their research projects are having to contend with social distancing measures, which has made some planned data collection, community and public engagement activities impossible.

There is at present a significant amount of money being made available for coronavirus research by a wide range of funders who want to understand the pandemic, mitigate risk and prevent a recurrence (of this or other viruses). While this is important, and presents significant opportunities for some, others do not have the skills, experience or desire to work exclusively on these issues. There is a risk that COVID-19 research will ‘crowd out’ other pressing development issues that will not receive the attention that they deserve and need. Thus, while it is imperative to undertake research on COVID-19, it should not detract from the research that was ongoing prior to the pandemic and that might have been altered because of it. For many researchers, reflections on how past or current research might change in this new context might be as important as any new research that is entirely COVID-19 oriented.

The pandemic also raises a set of wider issues about who we do research with and how. Researchers need to engage with communities to understand the impacts of the virus, but this is difficult at a time when many people are experiencing severe challenges such as loss of income, food insecurity or the threat of losing their home. While COVID-19 brings to the fore questions about social justice, it also raises issues about academic privilege and power relations. It is important that we approach our work with a heightened sensitivity and that we avoid entering situations that could potentially be exploitative of the very real challenges that people are facing. This is particularly critical to address in light of the white and class-based privilege being questioned and challenged through the Black Lives Matter uprising. Many individuals and communities, while severely affected by COVID-19, are unlikely to want to be defined by the virus or to feature in research as ‘victims’. Neither are they likely to welcome being portrayed as ‘strong communities’ in the face of crisis, given that they remain marginalised and disadvantaged through entrenched inequalities.

COVID-19 has placed significant strain on many of us but it also presents research opportunities that we need to consider and develop very carefully. Getting the balance right between seizing these opportunities while remaining sensitive to those most affected by the virus will be crucial as we move forward into the continuing uncertainties of a ‘new normal’.