Deepal Doshi

Doing fieldwork in a pandemic called for adaptation. First, to monitor Covid-19 waves, variants and vaccines, hygiene regulations and travel restrictions in order to even be able to do field work. Second, once it was possible, after 18 months of waiting, it had to be done under careful conditions – masked, disinfected, distanced and ideally outdoors or well-ventilated. My main objective was to conduct expert interviews with stakeholders and key informants from the government, civil society and academia in Mumbai.

The first step was selecting a suitable place to meet for the interview if there was no possibility to meet at an office. The interview location had to meet multiple criteria. Covid-related criteria included – ideally open-air or outdoors and hygienic. As much as one might expect, due to the hot summers and the monsoon season, most restaurants and cafes had indoor, air conditioned spaces. Besides, the place should also be suitable for an interview – quiet and conducive atmosphere. Finally, given the distance, travel time and traffic in Mumbai, it was necessary to find a mutually convenient location for the interviewee and myself (especially if I had another interview appointment before or after).

The next aspect about conducting interviews in a pandemic was the issue of masks – especially the recommended FFP2 masks. A practical limitation of conducting interviews with masks was the reduced clarity in understanding the conversation – which also influenced the quality of the recording. More significantly, the mask reduced trust and openness in the conversation. It is also expected that when two strangers are expected to have a one-hour intense conversation about flood risk in Mumbai, not being able to see the entire face and expressions certainly restrict the discussion. On the other hand, I was not sure which was better – a Zoom interview with a stranger or an in-person behind masks interview. Today I would say, definitely the latter.

In many cases however, if both the interviewee and I were fully vaccinated and felt comfortable to remove the mask – we agreed to conduct the interview with distance and no mask. In some cases, I have to admit, although I did not feel comfortable to remove the mask, I still did it in order to build trust in the moment with experts who I have been waiting for almost two years to talk with.

Another unexpected challenge was dealing with Covid skeptics. In one case, it was possible to divert the topic and continue on to the interview. However, in another case, it led to cancellation of the interview because of disagreement on both sides.

In a non-pandemic situation, I would have travelled in crowded buses and local trains, which also make up an important part of the ethnographic observations during field work. During the pandemic, at some point of time it was not allowed to travel in local trains for non-essential workers. However, even when restrictions were lifted, travelling in crowded public transport where people often did not/could not follow covid-regulations such as wearing a mask and keeping distance, I decided to travel by taxi for my safety.

The value of field work and in-person interviews was confirmed when I managed to get 7 online interviews over 4 months in comparison to almost 40 in 6 weeks in Mumbai.