To stay or go? International freelancers face challenges during pandemic

byKristi Eaton
May 21, 2020 in COVID-19 Reporting
Airplane

At first, passengers coming from a list of countries with coronavirus outbreaks were quarantined when they arrived in Uganda. Then, Uganda's borders closed completely on Mar. 21. Around that time, some of Sally Hayden’s friends booked last-minute flights to their home countries. 

She, however, never considered leaving. 

“There have been far fewer cases across Africa than in Europe and the U.S., and it seemed safest to stay put,” said Hayden, who has reported across Africa, the Middle East and Europe. She covers migration and human rights issues, as well as general news and investigations for outlets including Al Jazeera, The New York Times and BBC. “I also thought it was important to keep reporting from here on the impacts of the restrictions, as well as any potential escalation in cases further on.”

As COVID-19 has swept across the globe, freelance journalists working outside of their native countries — who are already in an unpredictable profession — faced a new quandary: stay in their new home, or return to their native country?

[Read more: Freelancing abroad: Paris through the eyes of a refugee reporter]

 

Some, like Hayden — originally from Ireland — decided to stay, and have never been busier. 

“I'm still going out to report while observing social distancing measures,” she said. “I've been reporting on the army assaulting civilians while enforcing restrictions, on the impact of a national shutdown on families who were already living in poverty, and on the deaths of mothers and children unable to get to hospitals due to a transport ban.”

Others made the decision to return to their native countries, unsure when they will return to the place that had become home over time.  

Kiratiana Freelon, a U.S. citizen based in Brazil, returned to Chicago on a one-way ticket, her possessions left untouched in her apartment in the South American country. Freelon covers social justice issues, with an emphasis on Afro Brazilian people, as well as politics and breaking news. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, Zora, AfroPunk and others.  

“Brazil went on lockdown the weekend of Mar.12,” said Freelon. “Around that time, intra-state and inter-state busses stopped running. I had to stay in my apartment in Rio and only go out for groceries. Around this time, I started talking to friends and other expats to see if they were going to leave Brazil. Very few of my expat friends had plans to leave. At this time, my mother started to worry about me, and I started to feel trapped in my apartment all alone in a foreign country.”

[Read more: COVID-19: Uncharted territory for freelance photojournalists]

 

While back in the U.S., Freelon translates articles for the largest newspaper in Brazil, Folha de São Paulo, and continues to freelance. 

Freelancing, however, has been a challenge. She’s had some surprising wins with patience, like finally placing a feature in an online magazine that she had been negotiating before the coronavirus hit. Although it took a long time to hear back, she was happy with the success.

India-based freelancer Somdyuti Datta Ray echoes many of the challenges Freelon is facing. Datta Ray works in her home country, but reports for international publications. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, BI Prime, Arré, O.School, Horizon Guides and KrAsia.

“I've collected plenty of rejections and even more unanswered emails in the last month, and understandably so,” she said. “I'm assuming that editors are equally swamped at this moment.” But she continues working as much as she can, communicating with sources over the phone while under lockdown at her house. 

Freelon doesn’t anticipate many of these challenges going away any time soon. “Somehow I survive,” she said. “But with freelancing looking dire now, I'm on the hunt for a stable remote job.”


Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist and Tulsa Artist Fellow based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the United States. Visit her website.