Adapting amidst a pandemic while still striving to achieve BRECcIA’s objectives

By Matt Kandel

Just as each country seems to adopt different Covid-19 responses, researchers are also developing individually-tailored, adaptive approaches to lockdowns (or no lockdowns). My colleague recently wrote about how one adaptation for him was adjusting his expectations of in-person meetings with all his new colleagues at our March project workshop. As a new BRECcIA hire, he had only just begun learning the ropes and getting a feel for his new colleagues—most of whom are based in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi. I have been working towards achieving BRECcIA’s objectives of supporting positive policy and practice change for sustainable water and food security in African drylands for almost two years now. Therefore, this type of adjustment was not necessary for me—I have already met in-person most all of my colleagues. I have, however, been compelled to develop strong adaptive responses with respect to no longer working in office and being unable to continue with field data collection.

In the UK, those of us who are not key workers and who are fortunate enough to still be fully employed are working from home. Working from home requires a different psychological orientation from in-office work. Once it became clear in March that we would have to leave our offices at the University of Southampton, I immediately began reflecting on how in previous positions I had (successfully) worked from home.

That prior experience informed the first decision I made: try to maintain an identical schedule with regard to hours of work. This meant setting the alarm clock at the same time, starting work at the same time and finishing work at the same time. I knew from past working-at-home experiences that the first week or two is the most critical window of time. This is when new behavioural patterns can become habituated. By aiming to reproduce my previous in-office work patterns I sought to leverage what I knew was a successful model. The challenge would be replicating this model under very different sets of circumstances and in a different context.

The second main decision I made was to assess how changing global circumstances might require a change in work plans. That an adaptation was needed here was quite clear—one could even say self-evident. I began thinking about different possible scenarios at 0-3 and 3-6 month time scales. Anything longer than 6 months—at least in my estimation—was impossible to meaningfully project given the highly fluid pandemic context.

An immediate change for me was the postponement of field data collection at our field site in Kitui County in Kenya. This research is investigating the social equity implications of dryland ecological restoration interventions, specifically with regard to farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). This fieldwork was to have taken place during March and April. No longer possible, I knew we had to shift gears. I decided that concentrating on output development from our Ghana fieldwork was the most sensible adaptation. The pandemic has—assuming one is healthy—created a context very conducive to writing. I sought to capitalize on this and with colleagues I am currently working on several different written outputs.

Many of my other BRECcIA colleagues are also adapting work plans. When possible, conducting interviews on phone—such as with policymakers in central government ministries—is a sound adaptation. This adaptation is not well-suited though to the community-based research I have been working on. Ultimately, we are all digesting and evaluating new information as it comes in and then (re)assessing how this might impact our work and lives. Patience and strategic thinking are higher-level adaptive responses which can go a long way in current times.

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