Learning, Life, and Love in times of Corona: A Personal Reflection
Many researchers have been writing about the pandemic as part of their scholarly work. We were also curious about their personal experiences and thoughts amidst these testing times. We decided to ask our columnist, Amrita Narlikar, who has been analysing the impact of COVID-19 on multilateralism, BRICS, and more, to share some of her personal reflections.
In December 2019, cases of a new form of viral pneumonia in China’s Wuhan province were reported. It took the World Health Organization almost two and a half months to recognize the seriousness of the contagion and declare the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic. Today, almost 890,000 people are dead; we do not know about the long-term damage that the disease will continue to cause to survivors; new waves of infection are expected. 2020, without doubt, has been a tough year for most people.
I could tell you about the many things about global politics that have worried me deeply in the last months (e.g. see here; here; and here). About how surprised I have been by the unwillingness of people to accept even the minimal corona restrictions (see here). About how disturbing I have found the almost colonial stereotyping of the global south, and refusal to recognise the successes and achievements of developing countries in coping with the pandemic. But in times when many of us feel afraid and angry, I share with you some sweeter experiences on learning, life, and love in times of corona.
Before you say it, full disclosure: as an academic with slightly OCD traits, one might think that the constraints of corona are what I have been training all my life for. I have had many phases of my old life in Oxford and Cambridge, when I would sit alone in my study and write for days. Home delivery services sufficed for groceries, windows could be opened for fresh air, the yoga mat helped with exercise. As a perennial migrant, I have relied extensively on digital technology to stay closely connected with friends and family. As a person who likes neatness and cleanliness, it is a relief to know that my use of hand-sanitiser is no longer regarded as an oddity. So I thought I would not mind the rigours of self-imposed isolation, deprivation of in-person meetings with colleagues and friends. As it turns out, I do, and surprisingly so. I miss the normal. Like shaking hands with colleagues, chit-chatting with the nice people in the supermarket, hugging my friends, travel for work and pleasure. And yet, this horrible time has also shown me our remarkable ability to cope, adapt, and learn.
First, and this is something that has taken me months to recognize – the last few months have been a surprisingly productive time. The reason why admitting this requires courage is because social media is full of posts on how duties of care are preventing people in academia – especially those with any family responsibilities – to carry on with their work. Of course personal situations vary greatly, and we often have different coping mechanisms when faced with a crisis of the proportions of this pandemic. My coping mechanism has been to go into complete overdrive mode. I am reading, writing, learning like never before because it is the one way I know that I can cope with the covidiocy that I see outside. It is my way of trying to make sense of this senseless situation, and help by doing what I do best. It is not a happy state of productivity, but the feeling of being able to use one’s productivity towards some public good is at least partially happiness-inducing. I have other friends in research and teaching too who are in a similar overdrive mode. And just the way I usually reassure people who are finding it difficult to be productive in this terrible time, I also now want to reassure those who are being overproductive. We’re all doing what we can to cope, and we all deserve some credit and some kindness.
An unintended and happy consequence of this pandemic has been that my outreach - and also of my institute – has in fact expanded dramatically. We have switched many of our usual in-person events to online events, and this gives us access to people, also in the global south. We are able to also attract much larger numbers – sometimes over three times as large – of participants to our events, and they include renowned specialists as well as members of the interested public. Of course there remain problems of a deep digital divide between the global north and parts of the global south. But our events now are certainly more accessible – in real time – to a much wider and global constituency.
My own outreach has also expanded by being able to accept a far larger number of invitations. I have, in the last months, been part of events spanning Argentina, different parts of Europe, India, New Zealand, and more. I would have much preferred to have all these exchanges in person. But I also know that I would not have accepted even one-thirds of these invitations in the “normal” world because I also care about my carbon footprint.
I have been pleasantly surprised by how well online teaching has worked. My students have been quite remarkable in their willingness to adapt to this new world. Studying together, despite the strangeness of the online setting, helped us re-establish some sense of normalcy in the last months.
Much human interaction can be lost in online settings, but perhaps what can be gained via smart uses of digital technology is underestimated. I hope that some of the benefits that digital routes offer, which we were forced to resort to in these tough times, will be retained even post-pandemic.
It is commonplace, especially in academia, to complain about the terrible difficulties of doing home office. And yes, much depends on one’s personal circumstances, including financial situation and living space. But in academia (particularly in the Social Sciences and Humanities), at least we have the option to work safely, protecting ourselves and others, whereas such is not the case in many other professions. For this, I am grateful. And I am also grateful for the extra time that this gives me with my family – time that I would have lost amidst the daily commute, and also the noise and commotion of the normal lives we used to have. Sometimes, our flat feels too small; sometimes we annoy each other; sometimes, the oppressiveness of this pandemic frustrates and depresses us. But over the last months, I have learnt to enjoy my makeshift home office as much as much as my real office.
Finally, and in some ways this has been the easiest and hardest: what happens to all the love and friendship we bear towards people this pandemic will not allow us to see? Here, my experience has been rather mixed. Some friendships have deepened, new bonds have emerged, old friendships have renewed themselves. For some of my friends, distance makes no difference as we know our hearts and minds are connected. Others have been saddened perhaps by the inability to meet as a sign of lack of commitment. Perhaps they are right to be disappointed. Or perhaps a pandemic is what one needs to really know true love – love that lasts.
Nine months since the outbreak of the disease, six months since the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, many of you might be pondering sadly over all the shake-hands, hugs, and kisses that never happened. To you I say, take heart. For they are there somewhere, in a treasure trove, and they will be paid back to you with high rates of sweet interest when this pandemic is over.