Advice from a pro on how to report abroad during the pandemic

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. Subscribe here:

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As COVID-19 cases continue to surge worldwide, few countries are welcoming international travelers, but for some journalists, the inability to travel directly threatens their livelihood, as well as their ability to keep their audiences informed in a year plagued by polarization, misinformation and loss. Such stories know no borders, leaving reporters wondering how to chase them safely. 

For this edition of Navigator, we spoke with Beth Murphy, GroundTruth’s executive producer who is leading work on our upcoming feature documentary, “Camera Kids.” After Rwanda lifted its travel restrictions for Americans, Murphy flew from Boston to Kigali in September to record the final scenes of the film, which showcases three orphaned survivors of the Rwandan Genocide, who are using photography to empower other vulnerable children across the globe and bring together victims and perpetrators of the genocide to close the wounds and move forward. 

Murphy detailed her trip and the different measures taken to control the virus in Rwanda in a column co-published with Ms. Magazine, and here she offers insight to other journalists into how to safely travel internationally in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic among countries with different approaches to curbing the spread. 

Her responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Pre-Flight

GroundTruth: What sort of questions did you ask yourself, or others asked you, when you were deciding to travel? 

Beth Murphy: The big question was: ‘Is this trip really necessary right now, and if not now, when?’

Having been on the ground at various times over four years making this documentary, it felt inconceivable not to be there for the final filming. And when Rwanda lifted its travel restrictions for Americans, it felt like there was a small window in which the trip was possible, knowing that there’s the very real possibility that the world will close again with second and third waves of COVID-19. When plans for a final photo exhibit with the children of genocide perpetrators and survivors were approved by the government, we knew we wanted to be there – as it was the culmination of two years worth of work. 

All of the other questions were around safety. What do we need to do to meet the requirements of travel to Rwanda? Before boarding our flight, we had to register a negative COVID-19 test with the Rwandan government to receive a unique traveler number and also show registration at an approved hotel that offers mandatory testing and 24-hour quarantine upon arrival. Before leaving Rwanda, we had be tested again and were asked to prove negativity four times before boarding to come home.

GT: How did you pack for the trip?

Beth: I brought a whole box of surgical masks, liquid hand sanitizer, sanitizer wipes, alcohol wipes, and small bottles of liquid hand soap. Although it’s pretty normal to travel with hand sanitizer even without COVID-19, I typically do not.  I am the least germophobic person that you will ever meet…I did also have gloves with me, which is not something that I typically do. 

I also packed more peanut butter crackers than I normally do. I don’t like having to stop for a meal in the middle of the day anyway and wanted to be extra prepared to stay out of public places like restaurants and convenience stores.

Related: From a pre-pandemic Navigator, this guide for journalists traveling internationally – if their destination is the U.S.

Mid-Flight

GT: What precautions were taken on the plane? Did you feel that they were adequate?

Beth: Before boarding in Boston, Qatar Airways passed out face shields to every passenger and we were told to wear them at all times over our face masks, except while eating. They also made it clear that middle seats would be empty and the way it was presented, it seemed like the airline’s policy to practice social distancing by blocking middle seat use.

On the flight out of Kigali back to Boston, though, nearly every middle seat – including the one in my row – was full and the flight was jammed. I asked one of the crew to clarify the policy and she told me that middle seats are only left open on flights with few passengers. Like many airlines, Qatar is also at full capacity, having already abandoned a blocked middle seat safety policy. The masks, face shield and care kits, which include hand sanitizer, are their answer to safety questions. Without national or international regulations, each airline is left on its own to decide what to do. 

I took precautions I believed would help to keep me safe. For example, even though we were assured that the plane and our seating areas had been disinfected, I used sanitizer wipes to further clean my tray table, arm rests and monitor controls, covered my hand with a paper towel before flushing the toilet or turning on the sink, and washed my hands at regular intervals during the flight. I also kept my reading glasses on even when not reading as there’s some evidence (that needs a lot more studying) that having your eyes covered can help protect you from the virus, in this case by making it less likely that I’d touch my eyes with infected hands.

Related: Explore our Navigator with Mike Niconchuk of Beyond Conflict on confronting the emotional toll of covering the coronavirus

Related: Check out Frommer’s guide to different airlines’ in-flight COVID-19 safety policies.

On Site

GT: What was your approach to your field work? Did you agree on safety protocols with your collaborators (the Camera Kids) and sources beforehand?  What were your “rules?” 

Beth: Rwandan government protocols are pretty strict and we also had to submit a plan to the local government to get authorization for our work in that particular district. We went to the local government office to make our case and layout exactly how we planned to work safely.  We assured them that we’d make face masks available to everyone we were in contact with, have hand sanitizer available and at the ready, and adhere to the rule that no more than 20 people congregate at one time. 

GT: Does taking the necessary precautions interfere with a visual component of your work? 

Beth: It’s true – masks are very visual and there’s no way to dissociate footage in which people are wearing masks from the pandemic timeframe. Although there are scenes from this filming trip that might work well at various times in the documentary, there’s no way to integrate this footage into a non-pandemic moment. And while there is absolutely no chance I would suggest to someone that they not wear a mask, I did encounter situations in which the people I was filming were not wearing their masks correctly; they’d let it hang below their chins or dangle from one ear. This is rough because visually it’s very distracting and I worry that it may seem that the subject isn’t taking COVID-19 protocols seriously.  Bottom line: masks are not visually ideal – especially for non-linear storytelling.

Related: Read our Navigator on safely and creatively covering COVID-19 from behind your camera’s lens with advice from two photojournalists. Related: Check out these tips to ‘reframe’ your COVID-19 stories from Aubrey Nagle in our Navigator from the early days of the pandemic.