The outbreak of COVID-19 coincided with me travelling abroad to undertake data collection. Flights were cancelled, timelines reformatted. I’ve spent the last few months scouring every resource I can access in order to maintain some sort of momentum. And now, with lockdown being eased across most areas of the UK and international quarantine restrictions soon to be changed, it is surely time to get going again, right? Except there is an unease, a sense that whilst “back to normal” may increasingly be upon us, it doesn’t feel particularly… safe.
Since March, my supervisors have repeatedly asked when I plan to go abroad. My answer has always been the same — when the pandemic permits me to do so. Although restrictions are in place, it has been made clear to me by them that where there is a possibility to travel (hotels are open, flights are running), I need to pursue it. And certainly, this data is essential for my project. I desperately want to progress andbeing paid to spend time in a foreign city is not exactly a hardship, so where’s the problem?
Increasingly, I feel as though I am perceived as hysterical, too fearful to travel and childishly reluctant to fulfil my duties as a researcher. I see this in my supervisors’ reactions, with whom I ordinarily have a good working relationship, when I calmly explain that I have legitimate concerns based on a considered evaluation of the risks. Although my destination has lower levels of the virus than are currently normal in the UK (where I am based), getting there would require travel via a number of hotels and planes and transit through central public transport hubs. I am immunocompromised, not in the sense of a leukaemia patient but in a mild to moderate, not immediately deadly but also definitely a serious thing kind of way. Ordinary, non-pandemic travel always results in my contracting a bad cold that, if I’m especially lucky, becomes a debilitating chest infection which persists for several weeks.In normal circumstances, despite taking all necessary precautions (I was regularly handwashing and socially distancing before it was fashionable) I accept this as an inevitability of travelling and pack accordingly. However, as it stands, I’m in no particular rush to expose myself to a virus I strongly believe will not merely leave me with a “mild” illness.
My supervisors are aware of this and have seen my medical documentation, but it doesn’t change anything. My concerns are, in their eyes, unrealistic. If it wasn’t safe to travel, why would the government allow it? Their questions have changed from focusing on the virus as a problem to viewing me as the problem. It is no longer “when will it be possible to travel?” but instead, “when will you be ready to travel?”.
I admit that I don’t know what “safe” travel looks like or when, exactly, it will be possible. Right now, I feel isolated and conflicted. I resent being made to feel like a conspiracy theorist for staying relatively well informed and realistic, if somewhat cautious. If I push back on this then I jeopardise my reputation and, possibly, my position at university. I suspect I am not the only doctoral researcher in this position. Being pressured to make decisions now based on the likely future progression of this virus is entirely unrealistic for me and the majority of PhD students. Experts are constantly reassessing what is known about this virus and somehow, we are expected to predict it and organise our research accordingly?
I accept that the world, including that of academia, cannot simply grind to a halt because of this virus. It seems likely that it is not going anywhere any time soon. I am aware that supervisors themselves are under pressure and, sadly, money does not grow on trees. Yet I see no professors rushing to travel internationally.There is significant power imbalance between students and those “strongly encouraging” us to take risks, which leaves me feeling as though I have no other option. Oh well. It will probably be safe. Hopefully.