FIELDNOTES: Doing fieldwork in the age of the virus
Nova Xeres Guimalan has been in the business of collecting survey data for more than a decade – having worked as a field interviewer in numerous survey projects and now as a field supervisor for the 2021 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS5) in Davao Region.
Nova Xeres Guimalan (2nd from the right) and her team after conducting a courtesy call with the local government unit of Barangay Sacub, Hagonoy, Davao del Sur.
These years of experience make her familiar with the complexities on the ground. To her recollection, however, nothing compares to the challenges she faced while doing fieldwork during the pandemic.
“Very challenging ang fieldwork; (mate-test) ang perseverance at kailangang ma-implement ang objectives ng survey,” Nova said.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, local government units (LGUs) have had to require varying documents before the survey team can be allowed to enter the sample barangays. For instance, aside from the usual permits/approval from the office of the mayor, LGUs with rising COVID-19 cases sometimes ask field staff to present vaccination cards and negative RT-PCR tests. As part of the survey protocol, too, survey teams must observe minimum public health standards, including wearing of face masks and physical distancing.
Field supervisors like Nova are responsible for ensuring that field staff comply with these guidelines. On the part of Nova, she ensured that they were vaccinated against COVID-19 before starting the data collection.
But despite best efforts to protect themselves, what her team had feared befell the field supervisor and her family.
About two weeks into the fieldwork, Nova experienced mild colds and fever that lasted for only two days. Incidentally, the team had to undergo swab-testing as a requirement for their entry into one municipality in Davao Occidental. On August 23, Nova and Jasper, one of her field interviewers, diagnosed positive for COVID-19.
Nova had to be isolated with her two children, who were also asymptomatic with COVID-19, and so did Jasper, while the three other staff underwent home quarantine.
For two weeks, the fieldwork had to be suspended, adding to Nova’s anxiety. “Aside from na-stop ‘yung [survey operation], saan kami kukuha ng income for daily needs?”
In isolation, she killed time by recording videos on Tiktok – a social media application most popular among young people. She also tried to fix her team’s schedule and plan out their survey operations for when their isolation is over.
“’Think positive on being (COVID-19) positive’ – ito na lang ang motivation ko, ito na lang ang pumapasok sa isipan ko.”
After two weeks in isolation, Nova and her family tested negative for the virus. Her team resumed fieldwork on September 10, and they are now well into the fourteenth sample barangay in the region. In the course of collecting data, she observed that households sometimes hesitate at first in participating in the study.
“Maiintindihan mo naman, maybe takot ang iba na mahawaan sila. Lucky lang kami na wala kaming refusal rate, pumapayag naman lahat [ng households],” Nova said.
Non-response is also affected by several factors, and not only due to the pandemic. Some selected youth respondents, for instance, are unavailable due to work or schooling, while some are not at home at the time of the visit.
In general, however, Nova found comfort in the fact that most LGUs, communities, and households are very supportive of the project, and some barangay LGUs even provided them with food and accommodation assistance.
Her experience with COVID-19 was traumatic, needless to say, but she acknowledged that the risk comes with the job, and the goal is to minimize this risk. “Alam naman naming risky talaga kahit saan, kaming lahat,” she said.
The pandemic has undoubtedly affected field research in the country and around the world. At a time when resources are necessarily directed towards saving lives and preventing the virus, social scientists may find themselves taking a step back.
For one, Nova noted that the number of available survey projects had dwindled since the pandemic started, and the YAFS5 is the only nationwide project she has taken on in the past year.
As the world move towards the so-called new normal, however, good data would prove necessary for making informed policies for the population, including the youth whose lives are disrupted by the pandemic. While COVID-19 poses considerable risk to both researchers and data subjects, field research as we know it – face-to-face and painstaking – is necessary to reach young people who would otherwise be excluded from remote forms of data-gathering, to include in the conversation the voices of young people left behind by growing digitalization due to the pandemic, and to provide an accurate picture of the youth in the country.
It is for these reasons that data collection for YAFS5 must go on.
(Interview by Sanny D. Afable)