More than a year after the global pandemic was declared, we’re back in the field – but in 2021, it looks a bit different.
In September, we released our COVID-19 protocols. The protocols cover all steps we will take to ensure our field teams and respondents are protected in the field.
Since then, three of our projects have been able to resume fieldwork in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Our Data Team leads in these countries reflect on what’s changed, and how we carry out fieldwork as safely as we can as the pandemic continues.
Anne Wagaturi, Data Operations Associate at Laterite Kenya; Fitsum Dagmawi, Data Manager at Laterite Ethiopia; and Job Obuya, Senior Field Supervisor at Laterite Uganda share their thoughts.
Protocols for enumerator training
Enumerator training is key to data quality. To collect reliable data, enumerators must have a good understanding of the goals of the research project, the methodology and sample of the survey, and research ethics. For data collection projects during the pandemic, enumerators must also learn and follow additional health and safety protocols.
Our first line of defense is to ask each enumerator to show a negative result from a COVID-19 PCR test that is less than 48 hours old before arriving at the training location. Laterite covers the cost of this testing.
Testing isn’t a silver bullet, so we ask enumerators to complete a short health survey at the beginning and end of each day. The survey identifies whether it is safe for the enumerator to work that day based on the symptoms they report, or whether they need to self-isolate and get tested. The results of the survey feed into a central dashboard, so our team can monitor the responses each day enumerators are in training or in the field. We also take enumerators’ temperature each morning.
During training and fieldwork, we require all enumerators – and everyone they come into contact with, where possible – to wear masks and comply with social distancing rules. We give enumerators hand sanitizer, masks (both for respondents and for themselves), and bin bags to safely dispose of the equipment each day. For projects involving taking anthropometric measurements, we also give enumerators gloves and alcohol wipes to clean the measurement tools.
Finally, we ask enumerators to maintain a ‘bubble’ during training and field work, to minimize contact with people who have not been tested for the duration of the assignment.
Protocols in the field
In the field, enumerators provide respondents with face masks and maintain social distancing, conducting the surveys outside the respondents’ house. Before proceeding with the main survey, enumerators administer the short health survey to respondents. If the respondent reports symptoms or has been in contact with someone with COVID-19, the enumerator will pause the interview, and relay these cases to our Field Supervisors. They may refer the respondent to a community health extension worker and a testing center.
We also try to manage logistics to ensure that we limit unnecessary movement of enumerators. For example, if we deploy 10 field staff to a single location, we try to book them at the same accommodation so they aren’t staying in 10 different places. This way, they can maintain their ‘bubble’ when not working, for the duration of the assignment. We’re also careful with travel arrangements. We do our best to make sure that bus and boda boda drivers our team come into contact with also observe COVID-19 protocols.
Enumerators might be tested again while they are in the field if the project is particularly long, or if they come into contact with anyone with COVID-19 symptoms.
When protocols meet reality
So far, implementing the protocols has gone smoothly. Our enumerators have remained COVID-free, and respondents have been happy to comply with our safety measures. We’re pleased to report we have been able to hit daily survey targets.
But as with any project, going into the field forces you to question your assumptions and make changes to account for real-world situations. Our field team managers listed a few challenging examples from their recent experience:
Making new plans for transport in Kenya
For a project in Kenya, enumerators traveled from Nairobi to a regional area, where each person was supposed to hire the same motorcycle taxi for the six-day duration of the project. This would minimize contact with different drivers. In practice, it proved very difficult to find a motorcycle driver willing to be hired for the whole period. In the end, we gave our team personal helmets and advised them to use motorcycles only where the drivers observed protocols like mask-wearing and using hand sanitizer.
Adjusting the health screening survey
The screening survey asks respondents if they have a temperature, fever, headache, and other symptoms that can indicate COVID-19. Once we started pilot data collection for a project in Ethiopia, we quickly learned that many symptoms are common and not necessarily indicative of COVID-19. In consultation with the client and Laterite’s management team, we adjusted the thresholds for the questions so that we weren’t needlessly referring every second respondent for COVID-19 testing – though we did refer respondents for other healthcare and community services if needed.
Changing the way we obtain consent
Usually for field projects, we request written consent from respondents via a signature on our electronic tablets. To avoid the need for physical contact, we have adapted our consent procedures for COVID-19 by asking respondents to give verbal consent. We record this on the tablets.
Not all respondents are used to wearing masks
COVID-19 case numbers, guidelines, restrictions and norms differ across countries – which affects our own safety procedures.
In Kenya, since February 2021 county governments have been strictly enforcing mask-wearing. As a result, asking respondents to wear a mask has not been an issue, even in very rural areas.
Until schools reopened in Ethiopia in October 2020, people in rural areas were not willing to wear masks and were often suspicious of those wearing masks. However, since schools reopened, there is a ‘no mask no service’ policy in most public places and we haven’t had any issues with mask-wearing since.
In Uganda, enforcement is not as strict. Respondents are used to wearing masks in certain public places, such as the bank or church, but not in their own homes. As a result, our field teams have reported that some respondents in rural areas take their masks off during the survey to make it easier to talk. Field teams in Uganda are therefore carefully observing social distancing and reminding respondents to wear a mask for the duration of the survey.
Our field team in Uganda wears masks to mark
coffee trees for harvest during a project to measure
the impact of agronomy training on coffee yields.
Acceptance of COVID-19 protocols is getting easier over time
Even two months ago, there was a perception that people in the cities were bringing COVID-19 to rural areas. Now, awareness of the virus has increased to the point where people are comfortable following protocols and understand the need to do so.
While we expect there to be moments in the future where we will need to pause fieldwork again, we’re confident that our protocols are working so far. We are cautiously optimistic that more projects will be able to return to the field in the coming months. We’re pleased to be back in the field not just for the benefits this offers in terms of data collection – such as building rapport with respondents and asking more in-depth questions – but also to be able to offer more work to our talented field teams. They consistently – and literally – go the extra mile to collect quality data for our clients.
The blog post summarizes insights from Anne Wagaturi, Data Operations Associate Laterite Kenya; Fitsum Dagmawi, Data Manager Laterite Ethiopia and Job Obuya, Senior Field Supervisor Laterite Uganda.