Virtual Engagement and Knowledge in Context: Migration Health Research Communications in South Africa during Covid-19

By maHp/ACMS intern Rachel Benavides, based on her MSc International Development dissertation (UoE)

Executive Summary and Key Findings Report


The first case of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, in South Africa was reported on March 5, 2020. The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, called for a national state of disaster on March 15 (Presidency of South Africa, 2020), and a nationwide lockdown went into place on March 23. Though Covid-19 has touched all areas of life for people across the world, mobile communities (migrants — internal and non-national, refugees, and asylum seekers) in South Africa face unique challenges and threats in the face of infectious disease and inadequate health access. South Africa already has high levels of populations with health conditions and diseases that have left them immunocompromised — tuberculosis, HIV — but mobile communities are especially at risk in the current pandemic.

The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa), is a well-known producer of knowledge in the areas of migration and mobility, has partnerships all throughout the world, and is home to the only migration and displacement postgraduate degree programs on the continent of Africa (ACMS, n.d.). After the onset of the pandemic in South Africa — as part of its Migration and Health Project Southern Africa (maHp) public engagement initiative — the ACMS utilised its relationships with organisations and advocacy groups to gather diverse actors for weekly calls, establishing the Migration and Coronavirus in Southern Africa (MiCoSA) Coordination Group. This is a convening of partners from academia, civil society organisations (CSOs), international organisations (IOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the government working in migration and health in the region. Per public health regulations, members of this call meet via Zoom. Since March, meetings have been held each week under Chatham House Rule (1927), under which all information shared in a meeting can be circulated by its members, but none can be attributed to any actor or organisation.

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health defines migration health as “a field within academia, research, education, policy and clinical practices that focuses on the relationship between migration and health” (NIPH, 2018). Research communications is the process by which research findings and evidence are conveyed. This study explored how research is communicated to and with organisations working in migration health in South Africa, specifically in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research question

What are the most effective means of communicating migration health research to organisations working on the ground in South Africa, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic?


This dissertation is situated within academic and practice-oriented conversations on research communications, health crises, and the politics of knowledge production (see dissertation report for full literature review). The study utilised a qualitative methodology, triangulating three methods: virtual ethnography of online spaces such as the weekly MiCoSA calls set up by ACMS; analysis of communications materials released by ACMS’s partners; and semi-structured interviews with ACMS researchers and members of partner organisations.

I utilised virtual ethnography to observe the MiCoSA calls, including discussions, common concerns, and interactions between researchers and practitioners. Additionally, I collected instances of ACMS sharing its research and interacting with partners and other experts on Twitter and analysed them to pull out common themes of these interactions. I also observed other kinds of media from ACMS researchers, including podcast recordings, articles, and op-eds. Those focusing on Covid-19, health, and mobility-related issues were included in my ethnographic observation. I limited the scope of the media I observed to what has been produced by ACMS maHp researchers during the pandemic thus far.

For document analysis, I collected 28 communication documents related to Covid-19 disseminated by organisations working in migration and health in South Africa and coded them based on thematic (Mills et. al., 2010) and discourse (Schneider, 2013) analyses. I limited the documents for this sample to only those produced during the Covid-19 pandemic by CSOs and IOs working with mobile communities in South Africa. The documents I chose to include in this sample were evaluated for authenticity, credibility, representativeness, and meaningfulness, as outlined by Scott (1990) and Mogalakwe (2006).

Finally, I interviewed 9 participants: 5 researchers from ACMS, and 4 practitioners working with partner organisations — 2 local organisations, and 2 international organisations. The interviews were semi-structured. All partners interviewed came from organisations that were also part of the weekly MiCoSA coordination calls, and all calls took place via Zoom. Calls were then transcribed and coded using grounded theory (Corbin and Strauss, 2008).


The primary ethical issue was the risk of taking time away from participants’ urgent work on Covid-19. I mitigated this challenge by using a primarily unobtrusive methodology and ensuring that information shared in interviews was beneficial for both my research and ACMS’s work. For purposes of consent, I limited the data I collected to only that which could be accessed publicly or for which consent was given in writing. ACMS gave administrative consent to use (anonymised) information gathered from the MiCoSA calls, and all interview participants signed informed consent forms. Verbal consent was also requested at the beginning of each call for the recording of these conversations.


This study was originally meant to be conducted in person. This in-person research design had to be very rapidly turned into a virtual one after placements were cancelled due to the pandemic. This meant that we had to drop some opportunities for data collection that were unfeasible in the current context, such as focus group discussions. Similarly, the inability to be physically present during conversations between ACMS researchers and partners inhibited a broader sense of the work physically occurring on the ground. Finally, working around participants’ busy schedules during a health crisis meant that I was unable to interview many of the partners to whom I sent requests.


The original research question incorrectly assumed that research centers like ACMS are the ones who produce research and then communicate that research to partners on the ground (such as CSOs and IOs)—in other words, that the process of research communications is linear. This is only one part of the story. The process of research communication is anything but a straight line (Shields et. al., 2015). Research is co-produced with partners, it is done by organisations and then utilised by academia, and it is deeply impacted by the involvement of participants throughout the research design. The findings indicated that in order to capture this complexity, the research question should have been something more like this:

What is the role of research, and of a research center situated in the Global South, in the context of, and discourse around, migration and health practice in South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic?

The different parts of the above question came through as common themes in the study’s findings. These findings still address effective communications, but in a more complex way than previously envisioned.

Virtual fieldwork provided greater understanding of how actors on the ground use (and in many ways, produce or co-produce) academic research. Research is not simply something that travels from academia to CSOs and IOs — organisations and communities participate in it, and there are benefits to that co-production. The fact that ACMS is a research center in the Global South, and that many of its researchers are themselves from the African continent, also emerged from the data as a common theme — in a context in which so much of the global migration and health research is done by research institutions in the Global North (Sweileh et. al., 2018), ACMS establishes itself as a Southern voice and center of expertise. This affects the relationships it creates and sustains with its partners, which are critical to research co-production and impact. Similarly, ACMS’s commitment to participatory action research (PAR) was mentioned by multiple interview respondents as a way to involve communities in all parts of the research process, increasing the chances that findings will be heard and will have an impact.

ACMS’s role in contributing to a national discourse around migration that can often be negative toward mobile communities is a tricky one — a consistent interplay between advocacy and objectivity, but an underlying feeling of obligation to contribute ethically responsible and empowering evidence to that narrative.

Finally, perhaps the firmest role of ACMS in the Covid-19 pandemic, echoed by almost all interview respondents, is to continue the research and work for which it has always been known. Covid-19 is a crisis, but ACMS has been consistent in their messaging throughout the pandemic thus far that the vulnerabilities that mobile communities face in the midst of infectious disease threats are not new, and that the coronavirus merely highlights and exacerbates them. This messaging can have significant ramifications for how South Africa’s discourse on migration and health continues to develop even after the most acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, whenever that may be.

Implications and Discussion

Using the case study of ACMS in the South African context, and the partnerships and platforms it has nurtured during a challenging time, these findings have the following implications for research effectiveness going forward.

1. Research communication is most effective when communicated by those within the community of the researched. ACMS builds partnerships with community leaders, practitioners, and organisations, and trust is established — which makes the evidence ACMS provides more likely to be heard. This is especially crucial in cases where ACMS might provide evidence that contradicts partners’ programming or theories of change. Without that trust, partners may be more likely to disregard that evidence.

2. Research is most effectively communicated when academics know and understand how partners use and disseminate information themselves. In South Africa, IOs and CSOs produce information targeted to national and international bodies, but CSOs are more likely to also produce information targeted to mobile communities themselves. Thus, research on the pandemic’s community-level impacts may be best utilised by CSOs for advocacy purposes.

3. Research communication about mobile communities is most effective when academics understand the advocacy space in the context in which they are working. When they do, they understand when to provide objective evidence, but also when to responsibly contribute to combat xenophobic and exclusionary narratives. Particularly during a pandemic, when these communities are more likely to be scapegoated, this discernment is critical.

4. Research communication in a pandemic must take into account the ways in which existing vulnerabilities are merely highlighted by current events, and that message should be communicated consistently and clearly, to ensure that the push for health protections for mobile communities does not fall by the wayside once the pandemic subsides.

These takeaways are tied together by the fact that ACMS is an academic institution that sits within its own community. The fact that ACMS is embedded in its community facilitates the above findings and thus makes their research communication more effective.

Many respondents spoke of their outreach directly to the media and with government officials. Further research could explore how effective engagement occurs with these actors during and after the pandemic. Most importantly, further research should address the question of effective research communication and impact directly with mobile communities. As ACMS and its partners engage in participatory action research through virtual means, conducting research via WhatsApp and other online tools, it will be critical to examine how this engagement affects participants, and whether the effectiveness of communication of co-produced research changes as it is further digitised.


This dissertation is a case of an institution, situated within its community, providing space, evidence, and partnership in unpredictable circumstances. As the world has been in upheaval, we have turned to researchers to make sense of the events. In order to do this effectively in South Africa, in the context of migration and health, research must be in true partnership with organisations and communities on the ground; it must be cognisant of the complexities of the research and advocacy spaces; it must be long-term, focusing on structural change even more than immediate action; and ideally, it should be communicated by those who live in and understand these contexts best. In South Africa, South African institutions like ACMS, its partner organisations, and the mobile communities with whom it works will point the way forward in migration health for the remainder of the pandemic.

This research was conducted in partnership with the African Centre for Migration and Society. The full dissertation report includes more comprehensive findings, literature review, bibliography, and annexes detailing interview questions, documents used for analysis, and online spaces and sources used for virtual ethnography.

The Author

Rachel Benavides is a candidate in the MSc International Development program at the University of Edinburgh, as well as an international development professional with five years of experience in international development research, analysis, and project management and support.