Some reflections on international post-graduate research in the time of coronavirus

Diana Valencia Duarte[1]
University of Exeter

On the 24th March, one of our own Exeter postgraduate researchers wrote this Twitter entry:

My research work is due largely to precarious waste workers in India. Many have lost livelihood. Those still working are vulnerable to #coronavirus exposure. Feels criminal to be academically “productive” right now. F*ck writing, I’m arranging financial support for my informants.

Unlike me, he dared to show how frustrating it is, how wrong it feels to be writing our thesis, using oral testimonies or inputs from real people, who in some distant part of the world could now be in a very tough and complex situation due to the current corona-crisis.

Our Uni has been amazingly supportive, our supervisors and directives, the doctoral college, our peers, in trying to keep the spirit and the optimism. They deserve a lot of recognition. And we are very much aware of how important our mental health is right now in order to fulfil our goals and follow our schedule. That said, I feel that is also important to add that for some of us it is no longer about us anymore and it just feels so unbearably wrong!

I keep on telling myself – as I did during my fieldwork while I collected those testimonies of violence, mistreatment, repression, suffering, displacement, hunger, injustice in three different peasant regions in my home-country, Colombia – that the best I can do for them is to be professional, to do my job and tell their history of food insecurity, to do it right to make a good case for their food sovereignty and basic rights. And that still keeps me going. However, it is not the same, it does not feel the same when I am fully aware of how vulnerable and endangered they are right now.

Firstly, I worked mostly with old people, most of them within the higher risk population group. Secondly, they all live in remote areas, where hospitals and ICUs are scarce. Two of the three regions I am working on lack appropriate roads and transport for the sick. One of them has also very poor sanitation facilities in its settlements, the water supply and sewerage are almost non-existent, as is clean water availability.

During the last week Latin America and countries of the Global South, in general, are sharing different insights of these crisis and the response to the lockdowns decreed almost everywhere. It has been said that this virus does not distinguish between kings and subjects. Yet, our societies do. While here I have space, and I can enjoy my garden or work with my partner in our allotment, most of the people in third world countries live in very reduced spaces, sometimes with various families within the same flat, for example. Some people in Indian slums have communal toilets that make lockdowns literally impossible.

Slums, favelas, comunas, most of the people there live one day at a time; a day with no work is a day with no food. Against every IGO recommendation, there have been large crowds gathering to claim state aid, which is never enough. The lockdowns have been either extreme – such as in The Philippines where the public force has been allowed to shoot whoever is out without permission – or none, as has been the case of Brazil, where the virus has reached the Amazonian tribes.

Our societies are not used to being “caged”; they tried to keep a certain level of social interaction, with awful results. This is apparently the case of Guayaquil (Ecuador), where now the dead bodies remain for days in the streets waiting to be picked up. In the Caribbean coast we have seen many families collectively assaulting food trucks in the roads. They are starving and they are scared. And fear and panic has made some of them violent, attacking the sick and health personnel.

The peasant participants in my research, who have been enclosed in their territories, are desperately trying to recover some of the few remains of home-grown crops they use to sow before the market made them “productive” and “dependant”, and lacking of many essentials that are scarce or have become unaffordable. Their current dependence on imported agricultural supplies, intensive labour and precarious food chains takes its toll on them. Within their deep religiosity the only precaution they have been able to take is to redouble their prayers.

My history thesis suddenly becomes even more relevant. Thus, here I am. Writing.

Yet, it still feels wrong.

I used to write with music on in the background. Happy and encouraging music, or sometimes music from those regions, to create an atmosphere of involvement within the Colombian peasant mindset. However, these last weeks I have not dared to play any music at all while I write. It just feels wrong. I cannot be productive enough; I find it hard to concentrate. And I refuse to feel ashamed about it;I have made peace with that. I just cannot feel happy anymore, I am worried for my people, for my country and all those communities in the South who cannot just lockdown and have the same small – sometimes invisible – privileges that I have.

Above all I am done feeling guilty about the “Who do I want to be during the covid-19 pandemic” type of messages: “Try to be positive”, “Live the present moment”, “Minimize exposure to news and social media”.

I am miles away from home. Not knowing or not even try to know what is happening there with my family, my friends and the communities who helped me, will not make them disappear. Of course, I try to help my local community here, and to work from home and to take care of myself and the people around me. Still, please do not ask me to “let go of anything that is out of your control”. Do not ask me that. I cannot let go. Those peoples are the very reason why I am here writing this thesis in the first place. I refuse to look the other way while they suffer.

This was my catharsis.

To all those peers far from their homelands, feeling as I do, I just want to tell you that it is perfectly ok to feel worried and scared for our people or for our participants. We might be able to use those feelings, to write, to help, to raise awareness about the asymmetries and injustices unveiled by this crisis, and it is all valid. In my case, I am incredibly lucky to have an enormous support from my Uni, my neighbours (who, from the distance of their front doors, meet every morning to share a tea), my peers, particularly Debbie K. and her twitch afternoon write retreats, my family abroad and my partner. My concentration is a bit out of focus and my enthusiasm is at a lower level, but my mental health is fine, and I am doing all I can to keep the research flame alive. Yet, I reckon I am not the only postgraduate researcher feeling that it is not just about us anymore. That our participants, people who contributed to our research and our Uni work matter a lot to us, beyond epistemological interests and we cannot be indifferent to their current ordeal.

As a last word and update: It seems to me now, a couple of weeks after I started to write this entry, that considering their less advantaged health service situation, southern countries have taken very strict early lockdown measures and so far have managed to delay the contagion (with known exceptions, such as Brazil). Although these necessary strategies put in place in time have kept the virus under control, they have exacerbated the hunger, precarious livelihood and mental health of vulnerable peoples, and consequently contributed to social tensions, blockades, riots, red cloth in the windows of those starving, and increasing suicide risks.

How can we help? Charities in the Global South, as far as I know, do not work as they do in the UK – at least not local ones. In my country for example, they do not really exist in the form of charities but foundations or independent associations and organisations, which collect money among their members or deliver social programs sponsored by the government or big companies. Therefore, they have not set up links to easily donate from abroad. I have been thinking about the best alternatives to help, apart from using such NGOs as Oxfam, UN filiates, Amnesty Int, Terre des Hommes or La Via Campesina ( which often support the main local organisations. I could only find the following, but I will be adding more to this forum as soon as I can confirm them. Please also feel free to share those you may know:

  • In Colombia

OPIAC National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon


Ayuda en acción (Aid in Action)


  • In Brazil

Instituto Cultural Padre Josimo


MST Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement


  • India/Internacional

Navdanya International


[1] Diana Valencia Duarte has an MSc in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture, and is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Exeter. Her current research project is ‘The Food Question’, which is an Environmental History of peasants’ food security and food sovereignty in three regions of Colombia, associated with agrarian reforms and counter-reforms 1961-2013.