Researching COVID-19 and its impact on families: some ethical challenges

Researching COVID-19 and its impact on families: some ethical challenges

Ruth Patrick, Kayleigh Garthwaite, and Maddy Power

There is already evidence emerging that although the COVID-19 pandemic will affect us all, it will affect us in markedly different ways. Families with dependent children are likely to be adversely affected by the financial, emotional and physical implications of the pandemic and resultant lockdown. This is especially acute for families living in poverty.

Exploring and navigating the ethics of this will be a central part of our new research programme, funded by Nuffield Foundation, which will explore how families in poverty navigate this crisis, while also tracking how the social security system responds. Working with Child Poverty Action Group, and using data from their Early Warning System, which gathers information from advisers about how changes to the social security system are affecting the lives of children and families, the project will generate insight into how the social security system is coping with the new and changing pressures it faces.

Emerging evidence from the Early Warning System suggests that families are struggling with the additional costs of raising children during the pandemic, most notably resulting from school and nursery closures and the subsequent loss of financial and social support (and the shortcomings with packages of support, such as the voucher scheme to replace free school meals). Families who were already living in poverty before the pandemic may now be struggling even more, whether because of the additional costs of having the whole family at home, all day, every day, or because of income shocks caused by the loss of paid employment. There will also be families who are pushed into poverty as a result of the pandemic – perhaps for the first time – who will face new struggles that they may not have had to tackle previously.

The challenges faced by families around ill-health and caring responsibilities linked to COVID-19 will not be felt evenly. A review into why people from ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by coronavirus has been launched by the Government following evidence suggesting that BAME groups are more likely to be seriously impacted and end up in critical care. Added to this is the elements of deservingness creeping into decisions in the social security system – for example, although we have seen increases in the Universal Credit standard allowance, there has not been an increase or lifting of the benefit cap which disproportionately affects larger and single parent families, suggesting experiences of COVID-19 are both raced and gendered.

In terms of food insecurity, Rachel Loopstra and the Food Foundation have shown that adults with young children are among the groups hardest hit by COVID-19. A combination of school closures, food shortages and the compromised availability of support from emergency food provision creates a perfect storm for families on a low-income. Although families with children eligible for free school meals in England are able to access additional support during the school closures, mainly in the form of weekly shopping vouchers, a poll found that around 40% of adults with children had not yet received a substitute for free school meals. There are also questions to be raised around the adequacy of provision and lack of choice offered by the vouchers, as well as about the potentially stigmatising process of accessing a voucher in the first place.

In order to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on families living in poverty, the project will also create a COVID-19 focused network of existing projects with a focus on poverty, and facilitate the documenting of families’ lived experiences, both virtually and offline. A focus on recording lived experiences of poverty during this crisis is especially important as in an era of big data and hard social distancing, there is a real risk that the lived experiences of those who are suffering the immediate and medium-term aftershocks of the outbreak are overlooked. As Gav Aitchinson has written: “marginalised people do not need to be given a voice, they need access to an audience”.

Researching the experiences of families in poverty in ‘normal’ times raises significant ethical issues and considerations; in the context of a pandemic, ethical considerations become only more critical and difficult to work through. All researchers of poverty and social security must now consider how and indeed whether to conduct fieldwork in the shifting ethical terrain, ensuring research that is carried out is sensitive in its duty of care, not only to families living in poverty themselves, but in its wider relationships with stakeholders. So far, three key elements have emerged in thinking this through, and these apply both in our own efforts to generate lived experiences through this project, but also in our collaborative conversations with other projects about how best to research in these times.

Firstly, the importance of enabling processes of collaboration and engagement in the design and delivery of a project. We are creating a virtual space for mutual learning between key stakeholders, which will also directly support the sharing of expertise within the academic community, facilitating researchers to collectively consider how to ensure their fieldwork proceeds ethically yet effectively in these complex times. The hub will also act as a space for families living in poverty to share their experiences of the pandemic, and document how it affects their everyday lives. We will adopt  a participatory approach, involving families in processes of dissemination and policymaking engagement.

Secondly, if researchers are to work ethically, it is essential to ensure those who have a voice are able to share it. Collaborative research carried out by Poverty2Solutions has emphasised, “an ethical partnership, with individuals living in poverty seen as partners in the research (rather than as subjects) and the research being conducted in a transparent and open way” is an important place to start. This is particularly complicated when considering how to navigate qualitative, and especially participatory, co-produced, fieldwork, taking into account social distancing and digital exclusion. Moving to online forms of data collection via websites, email and Skype interviews may be suitable for some people, in some instances. However, when considering how best to maintain (or even form) relationships at a time of mass social distancing, it’s important to remember that for some people living on a low income, digital exclusion may mean this is not an option. As the APLE Collective have recently written, “COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on a digital divide and the effects of digital exclusion on low-income communities”.

This not only raises wider questions about how this digital divide can be broken down by Government intervention, but also alerts researchers of poverty to how they can most ethically and effectively respond to the pandemic, and adapt ongoing fieldwork to generate new, timely and policy relevant data that highlights how the social security system needs to adapt. It is therefore important to provide a space for families in poverty to share their experiences, but in a way that is sensitive to the incredibly fast changing and challenging context they are living through.

Finally, any research during these times needs to take care not to cause further distress and hardship. Some of those most vulnerable to the negative effects of existing inequalities are being further pushed into hardship by the pandemic. As researchers, we need to be especially cautious about taking up people’s time during a period of endemic uncertainty and distress. Time is at a premium for all of us as we variously manage the demands caused by social distancing, caring responsibilities, and gaining access to basic essentials. It is therefore essential to make sure any research does not make unreasonable or unrealistic demands of people’s time.

This is also important when we consider the impact of carrying out social research during a pandemic on researchers themselves. Previously, academics would have the opportunity to think through research-related challenges over a coffee with colleagues or at a conference. Now, social distancing means we are trying to communicate via Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangout, often managing caring responsibilities, and the reality that people’s working capacity may change in unexpected ways and at short notice. We need to find new ways of connecting virtually, and we hope that our virtual hub will here make a valuable contribution.

Conducting ethical research into poverty at this time also creates a requirement to create effective chains of policy making engagement and dissemination. We need to make sure that evidence generated can help inform current and future policymaking. Here, ongoing engagement with policy makers in real time will be key to understanding how social security policy and individuals’ lives are changing, and have been changed, by the pandemic. In this way, we can lay the foundations for future interventions that more effectively recognise the challenges faced by families living in poverty, both during the crisis, and in the future, ensuring that any response is informed by families themselves.


Ruth Patrick is a Lecturer in Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. Kayleigh Garthwaiteis a Birmingham Fellow in the Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology at the University of Birmingham. Maddy Power is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of York and Co-Chair of the Independent Food Aid Network.

The project has been funded by theNuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.