“Our real enemy does not come from the outside, but from within. Our real enemy is not the virus but our response to the virus ….” (Viet Thanh Nguyen)
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s opinion piece (New York Times, 10 April, 2020) says it well, “Many of us are getting a glimpse of dystopia – others are living it.”
My experience of COVID-19 began in late January just after the Lunar New Year celebrations, also the last time my extended family gathered for a meal. I am part of my university’s crisis response team – I focus on curricular and student matters. Through these three long months, it is somewhat of an understatement to say nothing has been certain. I have caught a glimpse of dystopia – that creeping sense that all things we have taken for granted no longer apply; the feeling that time has been stretched taut, making each day so much slower and longer than usual; a time where we live each day fully disciplined by COVID-19 safety measures. There is a stillness and quiet never before experienced even as we in the crisis response team spent days and nights in frenzied activities. The paradoxes are numerous, and shared not just within the local community but across the globe. As Gates has observed, the virus reminds us that “we are all connected and something that affects one person has an effect on another.” A timely, important reminder.
When news first came out of China, one immediate institutional response my university made was to activate a recall of study abroad students and staff sited in Wuhan, and in other parts of China, offering assistance to return to Singapore. This quick recall turned out to be the correct decision as the virus spreads rapidly, infecting thousands of people in Wuhan, triggering much travel chaos and sudden border closure, which made evacuation increasingly challenging by the day. As COVID-19 continues its global march, more recalls became necessary – South Korea, Italy, then most of Europe, the UK and the US, where a few thousand of our students and staff were sited. Travel had to be facilitated, isolation measures had to be enforced, and the daily needs of those isolated on campus had to be seen to, in addition to the need to reintegrate students whose study abroad programmes were disrupted at short notice. This multifaceted response requires the university to mobilise a full range of crisis response teams to see to every need, in addition to ensuring the well-being and work, on and off campus, for many more others.
Early returnees had a comparatively easier time reintegrating back into the curriculum though there were challenges relating to late course registration; the last to be recalled had to take a full semester off and make up for lost time through local internships and to access courses during the upcoming special terms. The real test COVID poses to all of us is a life test of all those 21st century life skills we have been talking about for some time now. This is a test of our adaptability, our resilience and our value system; how much courage we will demonstrate, how we take to uncertainty, and how we respond with empathy and care, to spare a thought for other people’s well-being, and alleviate the anxieties brought about by the disruptions and uncertainties of a volatile situation characterised by multiple unknowns. At each point, there were calls for the institution to shut down, for the institution to void the semester, or to suspend all achievement rubrics in favour of a full pass/fail mode. Our decision to help our students cope with the uncertainties, and not to give in to ground sentiments requires everyone in academic leadership positions to withstand the pressure and criticisms, and to regularly reason and communicate the decisions we made. Not only does the team have to respond to crisis, it also has to respond to challenges within the community over every measure put (or not put) in place, as the case may be. As academic leaders, we walk the tension each day for the past three months, and we fully expect to continue to do so for the rest of the year, as we balance our institutional responses to crisis and the community’s counter-response to the responses we chose.
Here are two specific moments that illustrate this tussle:
(1) To shut or not to shut?
As early as February, even in the absence of community spread, and even with safety precautions put in place, there were already a handful of students who asked for remote access through e-learning modes, because they were anxious about getting infected. They argued, commuting to campus daily and being in class for some hours each day with other classmates pose a risk to their own and their family’s health. At both the national and institutional levels, all safety measures were already in place, and there was no firm scientific basis to justify this fear. For this reason, institutional leaders held the line, and worked instead to increase vigilance and ease anxieties. This decision turned out to be sound – no one in that period contracted the virus due to a public or campus contact. Almost all if not all confirmed cases at that point had known links, either due to a travel history to a hotspot, or a close contact with someone with a travel history. As educators, we are not in the business to endorse irrational fears or to encourage absenteeism. As institutional leaders, student welfare includes their academic wellness. As academic and administrative leaders, we have to make good judgment based on substantiated facts. As fellow human beings, we fully understand the anxieties that were experienced by our students and their parents.
What appeared straightforward now was by no means certain then – this decision required many untold hours of debates, reasoning with ground sentiments, arguing among ourselves, and the courage to hold the line in the face of uncertainty and opposition.
(2) Lift the grades pedal?
Many students argued, rightly, that COVID-19 has brought on unquantifiable stress to an already stressed grades-focused environment. What has also aggravated student stress level is also brought on by the non-academic issues that arose – lack of sound financial health, movement restrictions, social isolation due to safe distancing measures, and so on. The problems are multifaceted but the solution that seems common sense for some portion of the student population is to suspend grades for the whole semester, just as some other institutions around us have decided to do. One thing that struck me was that amidst all the uncertainties, some students felt certain that their performance will be hugely compromised because everyone is forced to adapt with each COVID shift, including moving from physical classes to e-classes, or from a tried-and-tested pen-and-paper proctored final to an extra take-home assignment or a remote testing mode facilitated by LMS and zoom. We wholeheartedly acknowledge the level of anxiety felt by our students; we feel it too. As educators, we tried to get our students to turn a challenge into a lesson in resilience, and to learn to ride with uncertainties, but for those who wished for immediate relief, and wanted grades to be lifted, they have experienced the stress to be beyond their own measure of tolerance. How does one respond when someone tells you “I am not as strong as you want me to be. Is my personal well-being not more important than keeping grades?” I feel the pain behind these appeals and I admit to many moments when I feel deeply distressed by these questions. They convince me that the impact of this crisis goes deep and well beyond what we do today, or the next, and the next. As an educator, I am at a loss to clearly demarcate the two, but as an academic, I know that the issues are not just about grades – there are much broader and more complex issues here, and grades are but a surface manifestation of a deeper felt distress brought on by a loss of control over our lives. Many have glimpses of dystopia and struggle to restore an existential grip we assumed we had all along.
My institution’s decision not to lift grades totally in defence of a robust transcript, and to grant pass/fail grade options for up to 50% of total credits completed for the semester continues to be seen as an insufficient measure to alleviate anxiety, as lacking in care. As academic leaders, we work for the sustainable long-term interest of our students. It is increasingly clear that COVID-19 can become COVID-20, and a combination of responses to help students academically and financially in the coming years will be a more sustainable approach than to apply a quick fix that will likely continue to demand for more quick fixes.
What’s described above is a local narrative that unfolded and is still unfolding as I write. One 4-week circuit breaker (aka partial lockdown) period has just been replaced by an extension of another 4 weeks, from April through May, with more tightening imposed on daily movements. It is a local narrative, but it is also one that is being played out in some other places too. There is comfort to be derived from the shared local and global experience, and it is frankly quite amazing how much many of us have achieved in building community bonds in the past few months as we work, at safe distances, to manage the crisis together.
Yet, the intensity of the impact of COVID-19 is experienced alone, because COVID-19 does discriminate – it is harder for those less well resourced, less powerful, less socially positioned, less mentally resilient, and less well informed. The more privileged among us can come up with workable alternatives to mitigate most of the disciplinary impositions; our less well-off sisters and brothers continue, sadly, to experience the oppressive conditions, and in many cases, the conditions have been doubly or triply oppressive. As Nguyen said, “Many of us are getting a glimpse of dystopia – others are living it.” We have just never noticed their dystopic oppression till COVID-19 laid that reality bare for us to see, and we are shocked, and have grown perhaps more anxious. The hope is that we will address social inequalities after COVID-19. We must.
Each of us will in time have to assess for ourselves how this pandemic has changed the way we live, work, and relate to others, and in time to come, must live out the effects this virus exacted from each of us. In trying to manage COVID-19, we will have to reflect deeply about how we managed others around us, and the range of concerns others have. Most importantly however, the real lesson we must learn from this experience is how we will and have managed ourselves – how we experience the pandemic, what responses we made, how and why we thought in particular ways and chose specific paths, either going along or against the tide. At the end of the day, we are accountable most directly, to others, and to ourselves.
A text from Bill Gates was circulated over various platforms in the past month. Gates said, “[the virus reminds] us that we are all connected and something that affects one person has an effect on another. It is reminding us that the false borders that we have put up have little value as this virus does not need a passport. It is reminding us, by oppressing us for a short time, of those in this world whose whole life is spent in oppression. … Whereas many see the Corona/COVID-19 virus as a great disaster, I prefer to see it as a great corrector.”
I have, and I am sure (!, ?) many others too, in the last few months experienced this sense of being corrected and humbled. We will need to revisit our priorities, rethink our all-too-comfortable assumptions about how we live and work, the routines we took for granted, how we are forced to review the strength of our relationships with family, friends, and colleagues, and for me, to ask myself, what do I have to do in this moment as an academic leader helping to lead in a time of uncertainty? These are uncomfortable questions to ask of ourselves, but they are important. In a paradoxical and quite magical way, amidst the frenzy of responses to crisis, even though I do not have the mind space to reflect on how I feel, I do feel that I have had a lot of quiet time to mull over these important questions, but I cannot in all honesty say I have gained much clarity yet.
I had hesitated when Kasturi Behari-Leak first extended this kind invitation to write about this experience. This is a very difficult experience to capture in words – I don’t feel I have accumulated a sufficient disinterested distance to think about it objectively. This crisis has impacted so many people in very personal ways, some of these ways we have not even begun to comprehend. I don’t want to add hurt to injury by writing too soon about something I am deeply mired in. But in the end, I have decided to pen and share this narrative, because it is part of a reflective, healing process that we must try to articulate how COVID-19 has forced us to rethink everything. I hope I have struck a fair balance in articulating the different sides of this still-evolving experience, from my own perspective in crisis management.
I salute the many people all over the world, working in healthcare, in other forms of caregiving, and the everyday good people who are practising their own acts of kindnesses to help those in need.
Gates, B., “What is the corona/Covid-19 virus really teaching us?”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The ideas that won’t survive the coronavirus”, OpEd, New York Times, April 10, 2020.