Over the next few weeks, we will be posting blogs from ecologists across the globe on how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting them and their research. In this post, Talita Amado discusses how life under lockdown is affecting researchers and students in Brazil – and how it is affecting her personally.

Talita Amado, sitting at her desk.
Talita Amado, sitting at her desk.

My name is Talita Amado, I’m a macroecologist from Brazil currently working as a volunteer post-doctorate at the Federal University of Sergipe, Brazil. My research mainly focuses on patterns of body size variation of amphibians, but I have been collaborating in research with different taxonomic groups during my career. I got my Ph.D. in December 2018 from University King Juan Carlos in Spain. I came back to Brazil to pursue a postdoc and, eventually, a permanent position as a professor. However, things have changed a lot since my return to my country.

   After my Ph.D. defense, I was invited to work as a postdoc at the Federal University of Sergipe, in northeast Brazil. My supervisor and I wrote a proposal for a fellowship from the main federal agency that supports scientific research, CNPq. If granted, this fellowship would start in September, so I spent most of 2019 working on previous and new manuscripts, co-orienting undergrad and master’s students, and teaching as a volunteer lecturer at Biology Department. It was also during this period that many Brazilian scientific agencies suffered immense cuts. At the end of the lecturer year, in August, I received the decision about my fellowship proposal, and it was denied. My project received a good recommendation by peers, but CNPq couldn’t finance it due to federal budget restrictions. In September, as graduate programmes tried to grasp for funding to keep afloat, most post-docs like me rushed to get one of the few permanent positions now open due to the massive retirement wave that hit the departments. I applied for two positions, neither of which moved beyond the application phase. At the end of the year, there was no indication that things in Brazil would get better for researchers. I was still unemployed, acting as a volunteer postdoc and living on my boyfriend’s income. So, in January of 2020, I started pursuing research jobs abroad. After two interviews, I got a postdoc position in URJC in Madrid, the same university where I got my Ph.D. But before I had time to prepare for a visa application and sign my new contract, Spain was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

            From the beginning of the pandemic, the government of Brazil has denied that it was serious. Following the USA’s rhetoric, Brazil’s president Jair M. Bolsonaro called the Covid-19 a ‘little flu’, ‘hysteria’, and chose to take no action against the spread of the coronavirus. Because of that, it was up to each state governor to declare a partial quarantine, meaning that only grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals would be open to the public. Restaurants and bars can only work through delivery and beaches, parks, shopping malls should remain closed. A conflict between governors and Bolsonaro quickly started and grew to the point where it was up to Supreme Court Judges to decide that any governor can declare quarantine for their state. One by one, Brazilian states started to take measures to stop new cases of COVID-19, from total social-distancing to only limiting gatherings with less than ten people. The state of Sergipe, where I live, closed beaches, shopping malls, parks, and non-essential services. The measures, however, are not being followed by most citizens and the virus keeps spreading even further. The same has happened to other cities and regions in Brazil and the situation looks like it is out of control. Thus, states like Pará and Maranhão declared total lockdown to contain the coronavirus spread. As the number of COVID-19 cases increased in Sergipe, in March my boyfriend and I chose to put ourselves in complete quarantine, going out only once in a week to buy food.

            All federal universities in Brazil followed WHO recommendations and chose to shut their campuses, move all classes to an online format, and allow only a small number of staff to get into their buildings. The salary of professors, technicians and the administrative staff was maintained, and masters and Ph.D. student scholarships were secured by the Ministry of Science. The Federal University of Sergipe decided to suspend all classes until the situation in the state gets better. The decision to suspend classes was taken instead of transforming the courses in web-based ones because of the disparity of internet access between students here. Sergipe is the smallest state and many students are from the countryside. Without classes, they had to go back to their family homes, where the internet connection is poor or non-existent. Even more, many students live in student housing and share a room, having little space to study and concentrate. Masters and Ph.D. candidates are having a difficult time keeping their experiments going. To reach the campus they have to take buses that are always crowded, increasing the risk of getting infected. Professors are a little better off; they have a good salary and without much administrative or teaching work, they can focus exclusively on doing research. But even they are feeling their productivity stuck in time, especially women with kids.

            As a macroecologist, I am used to working with only a computer. But the social-distancing measures makes everything feel off. It is hard to work from home, the overlap between personal life and our job is huge, the productivity is not the same, and we tend to pressure ourselves even more for not being able to focus. My lab colleagues are feeling the struggle too and our lab is doing weekly meetings to keep morale high and to stay connected. Even with these activities, I know that my research is suffering a little. Before the lockdown, I was planning to visit Peru to photograph specimens of frogs and rodents for ongoing work and this is now out of question. I will still analyze the partial dataset and try to move forward with this work anyway, but I know that without samples from Peru, the work will suffer and I will lose a chance to publish the final manuscript in a very good journal. This can seriously impact my chances of getting fellowships and research funding in the future.

            As my new fellowship in Spain was put on hold due to the pandemic, I don’t know if I should be looking for a new job elsewhere. With everything frozen due to this unusual situation, one can only wait and keep working and improving. But feeling motivated to start work every day is a challenge. The feeling is that my life as a whole is frozen. To cope with this, I am doing weekly video calls to my friends and family to talk about anything not related to work. Being far from my parents’ home is something that always moves me. I lived abroad for too long, and I was hoping to be more present in my parents’ life. I’ve now spent 2 months in quarantine, but I am afraid to travel to see my parents, get infected and infect them. To cope with these sentiments, I started to meditate, cook more, and returned to painting. Despite these crazy times, we need to remind ourselves that the current situation is temporary. The pandemic changed everything, but I am sure that soon we will back to the lab, we’ll drink a beer with our colleagues and hug our families once again. Let’s just wait a little bit more.

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