Words by Dr Mohammed Alruzzi, Research Associate, Department of Social & Policy Sciences, University of Bath.
When the pandemic broke out in 2020, there was a great need to understand its impact on the Palestinian population in Gaza. The urgency to document the social, psychological, and economic impact from a community perspective was driven by long-standing concerns over the deteriorating living conditions of the two million people residing in this narrow, blockaded strip of land. Residents and foreign observers worried about the consequences of coronavirus in one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
To understand community perspectives on the impact of the pandemic, our research team had to deal with a number of challenges, many of them specific to the context of Gaza. Most significant of these challenges was access. We were hindered not only by the travel restrictions put in place to address the pandemic, but also by the blockade enforced since 2007. Furthermore, it would not have been possible even for researchers in Gaza to conduct in person research activities given the rules on social distancing.
To overcome this challenge our team moved activities online. This came with its own difficulties given that most of the population is not connected to reliable internet. A minority has access to cellular data (3G is not available in the Palestinian territories). The scarcity of internet connectivity particularly affects women, children, the elderly, and communities already marginalised due to their socio-economic status or geographical location. Relying exclusively on online data collection risks ignoring the voices of many.
In response to these practical challenges, we developed a methodology that allowed for maximum community-level engagement while respecting the rule of social distancing. The team built on established connections with a wide network of organizations and individuals to reach potential research participants in different locations. Community organizations were involved in recruiting research participants, ensuring that vulnerable groups were not excluded. These community organizations used their ongoing outreach to connect the researchers to the participants.
The team developed a methodology that took multiple factors, including the tight time frame and available resources, into consideration. This involved engaging research participants in telephone/Skype interviews, communication through WhatsApp voice notes, and by producing written diaries. The use of several methods provided a space for different sections of the population, including the younger generation, to be heard.
The use of several methods provided a space for different sections of the population, including the younger generation, to be heard.
The diary exercise is an example of how innovation and flexibility can overcome research challenges. To undertake this exercise, we partnered with a community organisation – the Tamer Institute for Community Education – that works with youth groups across the Gaza Strip. The organisation invited young people (including children) to participate in the study through writing their diaries on the pandemic. Fifteen young people from age 14 to 25 responded to that invitation. For a week they wrote daily diary entries related to the pandemic, describing the way that they experienced it and responded to its challenges.
To ensure consistency of focus the participants were asked to consider themes that had been piloted by the team through initial interviews. The participants were contacted through a WhatsApp group every day and shared their daily diaries with the research team. Establishing this regular exchange was invaluable, especially in supporting those who had never written a diary. After working for a week with the young people, the research team received tens of diary entries, each telling a different story about how the pandemic was impacting the social, psychological, and economic conditions of people there. This method enabled the team to access detailed, reflexive accounts of the pandemic.
The exercise was not only helpful for capturing the younger generations’ experiences, but it also proved an opportunity for the young respondents to develop their writing skills. At the end of the exercise, several expressed their intention to continue with the habit of writing as it allowed them to reflect in a beneficial manner on their daily reality.
Conducting research remotely amidst a pandemic was a challenging experience. Undertaking research activities under these unfamiliar conditions brought about new questions, dilemmas and ethical concerns. The success of this project depended on having an inclusive and transparent conversation with all stakeholders, including the communities involved. Innovation in data collection methods and flexibility of the research team were essential especially in facing fast changing circumstances.
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