Research and the COVID-19 pandemic – not much has changed
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly become the new buzzword in the academic and policy world. Two years into the pandemic, we now have conferences, workshops, special issues of journals, edited volumes, policy papers, etc., all dedicated to the issue of how to navigate professional life and research during the pandemic. The list also includes topics related to the nexus between the pandemic on one side and stress, anxiety, family issues or economic consequences on the other. Still, even with all this talk about the problems researchers face amid the pandemic, fundamentally, not much has changed in the case of Serbia. There are two possible reasons for that.
The first reason is a very different approach to public health in Serbia (and the Balkans) compared to the Western world. Although the Serbian government imposed strict pandemic measures initially, such as curfews and restrictions on freedom of movement, this has gradually faded away, with most of the population accepting a very relaxed approach to dealing and living with the pandemic. This includes academics and researchers who have been performing most of their duties in person for the last year or so. The relaxed approach to the pandemic may also be attributed to the cultural factors in the country and the region, which still do not recognise stress, PTSD or anxiety as something fundamentally important in private and professional life. A macho approach and ‘I am stronger than the virus’ logic still prevail in many parts of Serbia. Lack of safety protocols may also reflect the lived experiences of wars, mass killings, forced migrations or international intervention, all of which, to many, may seem a far greater threat than the pandemic (‘the bombs didn’t kill us, neither will the virus’). Finally, economic reasons may be just as important since, in poor countries such as Serbia, most people cannot afford (or are not allowed) to work entirely online or wait for the public health situation to improve so they can continue their job search. The same goes for researchers who, by participating in international collaborations, see a great opportunity to work with their Western peers, increase their academic visibility and collect valuable data, but also regard these forms of cooperation as a lifeline for their economic troubles.
The second reason is related to project donors. After the initial ‘pandemic shock’ and repeated phrase ‘we are all in this together’, most of the donors have continued their business-as-usual politics by extending the deadlines for research deliverables for several months, thus pretending things are back in normal (when they are not). The pressure of neoliberal academia is forcing project leaders and management to push researchers to continue with their fieldwork while cautioning them to follow safety guidelines. The reality is that this is done from the comfort of their homes, while it is the local researchers who have to get outside and do the work. What the pandemic has shown is that North-South divisions in the academic world are alive and kicking.
Since work needs to be done (albeit a little later than envisioned), local researchers must go for fieldwork. And the work is done in places such as Novi Pazar, a town with a vaccination rate under 20%, where people do not respect most public health measures and even see it as impolite if you do not do the same (for example, if you wear a mask during an interview in a packed café where everybody is laughing and shouting). The job also requires interviews to be conducted with far-right activists who refuse to meet in a safe environment and do not accept the existence of the COVID-19 virus, seeing it as yet another conspiracy theory by those who rule the world. What do you do in these cases? You can either take a risk and complete the research, not following safety measures, or you can withdraw from the research. This is hardly a choice that would pass the ethics committee in Western academia.
The problem portrayed here is not just a problem for projects such as PAVE. In fact, to date in PAVE we have had a relaxed timeline in relation to COVID-19. It is part of the broader issue of contemporary academia that is donor-driven, dependent on the market and on the perpetual need to produce socially relevant results and policies. As long as this kind of neoliberal academic environment persists, the problems will stay the same. Project leaders and researchers will continue to struggle to meet the high demands and standards set by donors’ ‘excellence’ aspirations. The pandemic has made this imbalance abundantly clear. In other words, without systemic change in how we treat the social sciences, the talk about the effects of the pandemic on research is much ado about nothing.