Working from Home?
(COVID-19 Blog Series)

By Philippa Duell-Piening
PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School and Melbourne Social Equity Institute

8 April 2020

As a PhD candidate, six weeks post confirmation, the huge societal changes brought about in response to the COVID 19 pandemic have not required large changes to my research questions or methodologies, this is perhaps partly due to my research emerging from my background in public health and health equity. My biggest struggles in the current ‘lockdown’ are finding productive physical and mental spaces to work, staying connected to my research communities that are fundamental to nurturing me as an early career researcher, and accessing materials necessary for me to continue my research.

Six weeks ago I stood in the Law School building at the University of Melbourne presenting the first year of my PhD research on the right to be counted for people with disabilities who are refugees or from refugee backgrounds. Prior to starting my PhD just over 12 months ago, I coordinated the Victorian Refugee Health Network working to reduce the health inequalities experienced by people from refugee backgrounds. Public health and understanding the social determinants of health is where my interest in data was born. Data tells us about access to health services and disparities in health outcome. Data is front and centre in this pandemic and, correspondingly, another concern of my research, data privacy continues to be a pertinent issue.

Since my PhD confirmation, my personal and professional life are collapsing and merging together. As a returned traveller I was in mandatory self-isolation as the University closed its doors. Fourteen days is longer than I imagined. My anxiety grew with the almost daily emails from the University signalling the move to working off-campus. Fortunately, a friend was able to collect my laptop before the law school doors were sealed with my books and research notes inside.

My husband and I are living in my mother’s home with my extended family. Our home has been rented out to accommodate other travel plans we had this year. But, over the last six weeks those plans have dissolved. My husband finds himself out of work and we are living with my extended family who are all working from home. Everyone is stressed.

While in self-isolation, I was notified that I could still tutor as teaching was moving online. This provided me access that I otherwise would not have had to the tutorials, I was excited about connecting with my students through Zoom.

Person on computer screen with mountain backdrop

Photo: Me trying out zoom’s virtual backgrounds that enable me to keep a boundary between my personal and professional life while I teach. In this instance I used an image of the Victorian Alpine National Park to create an illusion of wide-open spaces in my confined setting.

I remember in the first week of semester, while teaching my second year allied health students about the social determinants of health, I likened detention centres to cruise boats in the way infectious disease transmission occurs in a closed setting, referencing the COVID-19 outbreak on the Diamond Princess anchored in Japan. I felt guilty almost immediately. I examined my flippant remarks, clearly cruise boats and detention centres are streets apart. Yet I tweeted the same analogy four weeks later as our news cycle was full of cruise boats and missing the stories of those in detention.

I am anxious about the impact of COVID 19 in detention centres and the lack of support to people on temporary visas including temporary refugee visas. I am worried about the lack of consultation with people with disabilities in formulating policy responses to the COVID 19 pandemic and am acutely aware in times of stretched health resources of the increased likelihood of violations to the right of people with disabilities to the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination.

I am not concerned that my research questions have lost relevance in the six weeks it has taken to establish the ‘new-normal’. My methodology may need some rethinking in a time of social distancing. I have become more conscious of the online communities of advocates with disabilities and communities of advocates who are refugees or from refugee backgrounds. But, much like other spaces, there seems to be a lack of online presence and voices of advocates with disabilities who are refugees or from refugee backgrounds, with a few rare exceptions (see for example, Nujeen Mustafa on Twitter @NujeenMustafa).

Philippa Duell-Piening is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Law School with support from the Melbourne Social Equity Institute. Her research is primarily in the field of human rights law with a focus on disability and refugee rights. Philippa is a member of the interdisciplinary PhD Program in Migration, Statelessness and Refugee Studies, a member of the Melbourne Disability Institute’s Disability Research Community of Practice, and affiliated with the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness.