Surveys across Distances
Chronicling the Impact of COVID-19 on Data Collectors
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The pre-COVID era has certainly been rewarding for the development sector community in India. Heavily funded research projects were being rolled out in full steam with field teams prepared to launch data collection activities on the ground. Amidst the nationwide lockdown announced on March 24, 2020, due to COVID-19 outbreak, long-term research projects (planned and upcoming) faced an unprecedented pause in data collection activities until further notice. In the wake of movement restrictions to contain COVID-19 and for organisations to generate data-driven evidence for policy responses, alternative modes of data collection were brought at the forefront. This ensued a panoply of phone surveys in the last five months, varying widely in scope and scale.

The extent of the crisis has also indicated the need to carry out concerted efforts to ensure that data collectors a.k.a field investigators are prioritized. For them, the pandemic came at the cost of losing touch and connection with the community. The absence of a peaceful work environment and strong network connectivity inhibits them to adapt to remote work methods.

To understand the short-term differential impacts of COVID-19 on the field community, we sat down (virtually, of course) with data collectors and conducted surveys between March 30 and May 21. Drawing on their perspectives, the blog describes the ways in which the pandemic lockdown has affected their livelihoods, employment status, and mental well-being as well as gauge their COVID-19 knowledge, attitudes, and practices. 

We interviewed 21 data collectors employed at the enumerator, supervisor, and manager levels across seven cities. Respondents are from Tier 1 and 2 cities with multifarious work experience across thematic areas and geographies to maintain representativeness despite a small sample. Our findings are summarized in a dashboard. From our pool of respondents, 90% of them were then employed and 74% of them had functional projects.

Navigating the New Normal 

The lockdown’s impact on our respondents’ daily lives was significant. For 24% and 14% of the respondents, the upheaval had a profound impact on their normal routines as they were not able to step outside and socialize with friends respectively. Given the majority of respondents in our sample are the sole breadwinners of their households, 14% faced adverse financial constraints due to unemployment or delayed salaries caused by periodic lockdowns.

“Since the lockdown was announced, our projects have shut down, our jobs have been affected and income zilch.”

Our survey reveals that a bulk of respondents reported receiving full or partial paychecks and around 79% expressed their satisfaction with their employer’s support during the lockdown. The combination of these respondents’ reliance on their employers and the lack of a savings cushion to fall back on accentuates the importance of having employer support. When asked about what more an employer should do to support the field staff during a crisis, 40% emphasized paying full and timely salaries, 35% stated offering multiple projects while others suggested activating provisions of medical and financial assistance would help. 

Around 11% of the respondents faced challenges transitioning to remote work methods for reasons such as lack of a quiet space for attending work meetings, conducting online training and surveys, and dealing with weak signals and dropped calls mid-survey. For 24% and 19% of the respondents, the work had switched to conducting remote surveys and unwieldy training sessions on the phone respectively. Working with secondary data (21%) and performing data entry tasks (24%) were some of the tasks they had to accomplish as part of their desk work. 

“The school authorities have asked us to wait for exams and results. I am worried about how this is going to impact my kid’s education this year.”

Almost all respondents have school-going children in their families. The impact of COVID-19 on their education has been multifold in forms of indefinitely postponed exams (29%) and direct promotions (18%). The children were at home either spending time playing indoor games (38%) or watching television (33%). 

COVID-19 Awareness and Best Practices

All respondents in our sample were well informed about COVID-19 and the protective behaviours either through social media, news, neighbours, friends, or relatives. We assessed their knowledge and awareness about COVID-19 and asked them to name common symptoms – high fever (29%), dry cough and sore throat (25%), difficulty breathing (19%), and headache (12%) were the most reported key symptoms. As precautionary measures to protect themselves from contracting the virus, practice social distancing (22%), wash hands with soap (21%), and wear masks when outside (17%) are the most cited practices. Around 29% of them emphasized the role of local leaders and NGOs for raising awareness in their community about communicating the dangers of COVID-19 and the importance of social distancing.

Psychological Impacts and Well-being

The majority of respondents felt extremely concerned by the possibility of lockdown extension. When asked what they would be most concerned about – not being able to go outside was reported as a huge concern by 23% of them, followed by losing their jobs for 18% which will exacerbate their financial condition, and the inability to pay for household expenditures (12%). Furthermore, when asked about how they will financially sustain during these difficult times, 33% stated having sufficient money for a few months, while 25% hoped to make it work using their personal savings. Around 14% of them also stated that they might borrow money from friends or relatives, and some affirmed their inclination towards looking for a secure and well-paying job. 

“It has been difficult to find a job. I’m on a shoestring budget and the worry of how to sustain makes me anxious.” 

 

“I have work but that’s not very focused, it’s quite slow, I study and keep looking for opportunities and if I get a chance I would like to switch.”

The pandemic has presented us with unique challenges. We are navigating uncharted waters, grappling with new ways to work while also taking care of our mental health and well-being. Around 71% of the respondents in our sample were on pins and needles about the future and questioned their odds of finding a job and providing for their families. Around 33% of them reported this perennial anxiety substantially disrupted their daily routine and made them unproductive at work.

The consequences of the pandemic are likely to be particularly salient for data collectors who, in addition to navigating its ubiquitous effects, are also navigating remote work, reduced interactions and access to employment opportunities, as well as major disruptions to their quotidian routines. At a time when collecting timely and reliable data is critical to addressing the pandemic’s impact, the constant engagement with data collectors has become indispensable. This underscores the importance of providing them with economic and psychological support, incentives and job opportunities because their dedicated efforts play such an important part in what we do every day.

We at SurveySights operate on the central theme of keeping human values at the cornerstone of our work of providing high-quality data. We engage data collectors as the project front-runners and impact beneficiaries because it is through them that we get to experience the nuances and understand the field dynamics. As we pivot to new methods for conducting surveys, we are also working towards building a cadre of highly trained data collectors and empowering them with skills that extend beyond the project scope.

The blog is also published on our SurveySights Medium page

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Appendix: Data Collection Methodology

We sincerely thank all the respondents for their participation in the survey and sharing their experiences with us.

  • We reached out to 30 data collectors, out of which we spoke to 21 of them employed at the enumerator, supervisor, and manager levels across seven cities – Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hubli, Ayodhya, Hyderabad, and Bhopal.
  • The quantitative survey instrument can be accessed here. The time taken to complete the survey varied between 20-30 minutes. We explored questions on five COVID-19 topics including demographic questions; (i) Economic impacts, (ii) Migration, (iii) COVID-19 knowledge awareness and best practices, (iv) Educational impacts, (v) Psychological and well-being impacts.
  • We followed protocols to achieve a high response rate where respondents were either called or messaged in advance to schedule interviews as per their convenience. We sought their consent for participation as well as to record the interviews. We also recorded the dates and time at which these interviews were conducted and the reasons for their non-response.
  • We ensured to maintain sensitivity while interviewing the respondents. Therefore, we sought feedback on survey questions from the respondents to ensure we weren’t asking questions that could potentially be insensitive or invasive.
  • Strict data security protocols were followed to ensure the confidentiality of the data. Survey responses were collected via phone. Data along with the audio recordings were uploaded to a secure database which was only accessible by the research team.

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