Islanders in the midst of a pandemic
I was born and brought up in the Maldives, a country where climate change is a daily existential threat. For long I have wanted to understand the underlying processes of these changes in the context of small island states. I now have an opportunity to explore these issues and concerns more deeply as a graduate researcher at the Universities of Melbourne and Manchester.
I visited the island of Dhiffushi shortly after commencing my PhD journey. This trip was a real eye opener for me not only as a researcher but as a Maldivian who had spent most of her life in Malé, the capital. My time in Dhiffushi gave me an opportunity to reflect on my research topic and the approach I would take. The trip was also timely as I was able to witness the new challenges being faced by local people that were emerging in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Although I have lived in Malé for most of my life, my understanding, experience and knowledge about life on other islands has been very limited. The brief time spent wandering around the physical environment and interacting with people on Dhiffushi made me realize just how different life is in smaller rural communities compared to the larger urban centres such as Malé.
The most interesting conversation I had was with members of the Dhiffuishi Island Council who shared their experiences of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. It was fascinating to listen to how the Council and the islanders came together to work as a community to source food for everyone and to distribute it fairly and equitably. For me, this revealed that a close-knit ‘community spirit’, often no longer evident in Malé, still exists on smaller islands.
Speaking with people on Dhiffushi, I also began to appreciate that despite the vulnerability and instability of food systems, people are exceptionally resilient. The way people adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic provides an example of this. The Council were able to work closely with the community of Dhiffushi to arrange transport to Malé and source the bulk supplies of food usually purchased at Ramazan which coincided with the very beginning of the pandemic. At this time, the Council made a list of the requirements of each household and ensured that these items were made available and delivered to them, without leaving anyone behind.
This is a truly captivating example of how islanders adapt to changes in times of disruption and the crucial role played by community-based adaptation measures in small island communities such as Dhiffushi. These strategies are rarely witnessed today in urban areas such as Malé.
This experience has been valuable for me as a PGR. It helped me refine my research questions focusing them more directly towards addressing issues raised in island contexts. It also made me realise the value of ethnographic research and its importance in gaining insights into people and their way of life.
Anaa Hassan, PGR Student at the University of Melbourne/Manchester