It’s been a strange few weeks. As the panic around the new virus known as COVID-19 spread across the globe after having brought China to a virtual standstill, most institutions of learning in the country – schools, colleges, universities – decided to suspend face-to-face classes and let children stay home. Our social media feeds are full of stories about how communities in Italy are coping (including a viral video that showed people singing on their balconies) and how shoppers in the US are panic-buying such things as toilet paper! With the reports ranging from scary (overflowing hospitals and inadequate isolation facilities) to remote (everything is happening far from us), it was hard to get a sense of exactly how serious the issue is and how drastic our own measures should be. All the forwards on WhatsApp did not help, despite enthusiastic suggestions for remedies (homemade rasam and garlic pods) and claims of Indian immunity. With the WHO chief labelling the Corona outbreak a “pandemic” all doubt fled and there is general acceptance that we cannot ignore the warnings or the danger.
The resulting widespread disruption has been felt keenly across different aspects of life. While we may as a society be accustomed to unanticipated closures due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances ranging from natural disasters to conflicts, this time it has been quite different. We have come to adopt new behaviours and be more mindful of older prescriptions such as handwashing. Among the new terms that we have learned is “social distancing” – the practice of maintaining a healthy physical distance from others. It’s not always easy or even possible to do this – think of crowded public transport and queues for railway tickets, or those who live in very small homes. But it has made us more aware of our own presence and that of others, and at least try to be respectful of community needs and fears.
Many social observers say that the effects of this pandemic will last a long time, and perhaps create some permanent change – in public health systems, in social practices, and individual behaviours. Be that as it may, COVID-19 has offered and will continue to offer many teachable and learnable moments. When children come back into the classroom, there will be much to talk about, and many questions to explore, no matter what the subject. From the science of transmission to the mathematics of tracking, from the art and music of awareness raising to the organization and mobilization of communities, from the politics of government action to the economic impacts – there can be projects, debates, individual and collaborative explorations. What are the limits this experience has revealed about our own systems, and what are the stories of hope it has provided us?
Perhaps it won’t be a fun summer for everyone, but there are lessons to be learnt – from our own observations and experiences, but also from those we are reading about, from across the world.
Stay healthy, stay safe!