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Covid-19: Doing research in strange times

After the ConFoBis in Freiburg had heard of our colleague Xiang being stuck in his home country, it was only with a little delay that Covid-19 hit Freiburg as well. Being in Germany during the time of the pandemic means living under relatively mild restrictions in comparison to many other countries. Still, all of us had to learn to adjust to some drastic changes in a very short period of time, both personally and professionally. For ConFoBi, this resulted in two very different types of challenges which hit different people in different ways: Going to the field had suddenly become a major adventure, and getting used to working from home, far from the office and from each other, proved to be difficult for many of us as well.

Not all the projects in ConFoBi do fieldwork, and not all were planning to do it in the same period. But for some projects, the lockdown occurred at the worst possible moment. Following a mild winter, when the first measures were adopted, most of the plots were already free of snow, the first leaves started to appear and birds began to breed. This meant that, with some schedules already being unsettled, it was a major challenge when all travel permissions were retracted, including those for fieldwork. We completely understood the rationale: Even though fieldwork in the Black Forest is relatively safe from an epidemiologic point of view, guidelines, regulations and save ways of doing things had to be developed in a very brief time frame and under great uncertainty. Also, we, the ConFoBis, wanted to be sure to do the right thing and not to endanger anyone. Still, it left many unsure of how and when they would be able to continue their work. After several weeks, trips to the field could be resumed with many safety measures in place, and the field season started. It proved to be a very stressful time (and in many cases still is), but despite the obstacles and considering the circumstances, we still managed, which makes us happy and proud.

Working from home was another experience that was at first not easy for many of us. Suddenly having to grab all your stuff from the office and then finding yourself stuck at home, either alone in your apartment, in a crowded shared flat or with your small children, posed different challenges to all of us. Not having the office space to structure the day was probably a difficulty for many people not having worked from home a lot. The day tends to become a blur and without the usual activities, it becomes hard even telling the days of the week apart. Suddenly doing the laundry, vacuuming or dusting off the shelves become highly attractive task. For me personally, setting a schedule mimicking an office routine proved to be crucial not only to get work done, but also for being able to actually relax afterwards. It also meant getting all your work materials home and running – computers, books, but it sometimes also meant setting up a microscope on the kitchen table. Still, especially with children not being able to go to day care, it was simply not possible for everyone to shoulder the same amount of work load than in 'normal times'. Another big issue was the feeling of loneliness. As we became painfully aware, offices are not only places to work, but also to interact – to have a shared coffee or lunch break, to poke one's heads in someone else's office to ask a quick question or have a brief chat, or simply to be in an office where other people's rhythmic keystrokes allow your mind to settle into a concentrated working mood.

Our weekly team meeting, which was moved to Zoom and postponed to the evening, to allow for participation by those being in the field during the day, was now sometimes continued beyond its official end, to share a virtual glass of beer or wine and hear how everyone was feeling. Once the rules for behavior in public spaces became clearer, going for (proper distanced) walks also became an important part of keeping healthy and sane for many – without fresh air and nice people, times would have been much harder. All of this proved to me that we are a great team, supporting each other professionally, but also being there for each other when times are difficult and sadness or the anxiety coming with uncertainty strike. And now, as the lockdown is very slowly being lifted again, we are aware of, and grateful for, the privileged position we found ourselves in. We are all healthy, we didn't have to worry about losing our financial support, we still got a lot of work done and we had people who would lift us up when we felt lost or down.

by Manuel John (D1) with contributions from Andreea Spinu (A2), Dina Emrich (B1), Nolan Rappa (B3) and Marlotte Jonker (B5)