Intersecting crises and safety nets: further research findings from ‘Livelihood impacts of coping with Coronavirus in rural Africa’ (CwC)
by the CwC team
We have reported in previous blog posts on setting up our research project ‘Livelihood impacts of coping with Coronavirus in rural Africa’ (CwC), the ethical and methodological metamorphoses required, and some initial findings of many of our interviewees are anticipating a difficult year ahead.
Now, our research team has collected up to four weeks’ worth of phone interviews in some of our research sites based on the relationships our research leads and interviewers have built with respondents and local authorities. In our quest to tell our participants’ stories, we are coding them through Nvivo, a qualitative research programme which allows us to identify themes and patterns in responses both in terms of what is said, by whom it is said and how it is said. We have identified over 50 important themes so far and are working to simplify these into further key findings. Here we report some of the main emerging themes.
Common, but differentiated experiences
Our in-depth analysis has confirmed our initial findings in terms of the varied effects of Covid. There are some commonalities, yet also some important differences in how all eight of our communities have lived with Covid and its restrictions so far. The commonalities among our eight communities include more limited opportunities to sell produce and products due to restrictions on transport and passing traders. Similarly, there is now a smaller range of products on offer to buy as a result of traders’ movements being restricted. This is equally linked to less money being in circulation: limited opportunities to sell products also mean less money being available for casual labour, on which particularly more vulnerable community members often depend. They also include community gatherings being severely limited, affecting village meetings which ordinarily are a key conduit for information and governance.
Possibly the most pronounced shared experience concerns, as one of our research leads put it, a sense of bewilderment about this foreign construct of Covid. There have, thankfully, not yet been any confirmed Covid cases in our partner communities. At the same time, the spectre of Covid has prompted a range of far-reaching restrictions which affect our interviewees’ daily routines, their abilities to earn an income and look after their families. While many readers of this post may have access to real-time written and visual details about cases and fates of Covid patients, what would all of us have made of Covid and its restrictions in the absence of Covid cases being identified in contexts we know about? If we only knew about Covid as something talked about on posters, in village meetings, by health professionals, but that was only actually present in the severe repercussions for our lives?
In terms of differences of experiences, some communities who have not yet harvested their crops have seen less of an impact on their income streams, yet are aware the impact will come if the restrictions persist. Equally, those with formal employment relations, for instance as village head or teachers, have seen this part of their livelihood less affected, though informality is far more prevalent among our respondents. A final point of difference concernspeople’s feelings on what should be part of the response to Covid. Many say obedience to the advice of government and health officials is crucial. Others would like churches to re-open as they feel there is an important spiritual component. Others feel a reliance on traditional leaders and their ceremonies is vital.
In communities in the semi-arid Mabalane region, the Covid restrictions have come amid a sustained dry spell. Some of our respondents can even name to the day when the last rains fell – in February 2020. This has led many of our participants to see their crops die, eliminating a crucial source of food and income. While droughts and bad harvests often happen in this region, the Covid situation has meant that another key source of income, charcoal production, has been affected severely as well. Normally, the charcoal is transported by train from Mabalane to Maputo, to be sold to the residents of the capital. However, due to Covid, trains have not been running. Consequently, our participants report much-reduced opportunities to sell their charcoal, as getting charcoal to Maputo now exclusively happens through trucks buying from them and transporting it to the capital. This not only means fewer sacks of charcoal being sold – where they are sold, they are sold at lower prices. At the same time, respondents throughout our panel report that prices for food and other essentials have risen given travel and transport restrictions. Even if people have funds, their purchasing power is reduced significantly.
As one participant put it: I don’t know what to feed my children. Several stated: We are about to die from hunger.
It thus appears that a crucial question is how Covid intersects with existing inequalities and existing crises including climate change.
Natural resources: a crucial safety net
An interesting observation from the data so far is that access to and use of environmental resources has not changed much due to Covid. While Covid restrictions have severely affected livelihoods that involve travelling to sell goods e.g. at a station or to buy wholesale and sell retail, access to environmental resources such as wood to produce charcoal or collect baobab to sell has been far less affected . Many respondents speak about how important, especially amid intersecting vulnerabilities, these resources are given the restrictions which Covid continues to impose.
As we move into the next phase of the project, we continue to be challenged by our participants’ and each others’ thoughts and experiences to question our knowledge and learning in light of the pandemic’s effects.
This work was carried out with financial support from the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed herein are those of the creators and do not necessarily represent those of the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, IDRC or its Board of Governors. The work was also supported by a grant from the University of Edinburgh.