Three weeks before the UK began lockdown, The New York Times published an article by Harvard historian Hannah Marcus entitled ‘What the Plague Can Teach Us About the Coronavirus’. The standfirst – “We need to be on guard against the xenophobia and persecution that arose during outbreaks of that dreaded disease” – struck a familiar chord for educators, and one much closer to home.
In the Middle Ages Jews were accused of poisoning wells and bringing the plague to Europe. Quarantine measures for immigrants were introduced in New York after epidemics in the late 19th century, and the term ‘cordon sanitaire’ originally expressed the geography of segregation, as much as it did disease control. In 2020, the target has been different.
Throughout January and February, we received reports from colleagues and peers about the harassment Chinese students were experiencing. This included jeers and insults as they went about their daily business. One UCL student from Singapore was beaten up on Oxford Street; his attackers accusing him personally of bringing coronavirus into the UK. Not surprisingly, when many received the call to return home, they fled. Thousands of students left London and on arrival in their home countries many were placed in quarantine, where they were deprived of mobile phones, access to the internet, and lost contact with their fellow students.
Of course, such abuse was not limited to London university students. All over the world Asians have endured it. Coronavirus or COVID-19 has also been labelled ‘Wuhan flu’, with the president of the US describing it as a “Chinese virus”. Words are weapons: the Pew Research Center’s latest survey of how people in the US envision a post-pandemic world order recorded that two-thirds of them now hold negative views about China.
In other parts of the world, different groups have been tarred with the accusation of spreading COVID-19. In India, it’s the Muslims; in Pakistan, Ahmadis are at fault; and their neighbours charge Uzbeks with causing the pandemic. Further, many populist leaders have seized upon collective fear to introduce emergency measures which include suspending parliament, curtailing civil liberties, closing off borders and clamping down on the media. The suppression of democratic institutions does little to counter the negative stereotypes and new forms of xenophobia which Marcus warns against.
This presents students with an extraordinary learning opportunity
You could be forgiven for thinking that the weight of history might guide us and help to dispel these myths. Unfortunately, as seasoned humanitarian workers will tell you, institutional memory is short. We tend to be pushed from one crisis to another rather than reflecting on past experience with a view to learning. Of course, some do learn: South Korea invested heavily in its health system after SARS and has done remarkably well in curbing the rate of infection and death due to COVID-19. But it is a rare exception.
History is, however, only one lens through which to examine the current pandemic, and xenophobia, just one response to the crisis we are all living through. There are other sides to this story. We must remember the many ways in which ordinary people have reacted by offering hospitality and time, and by making personal gestures. No doubt the images of Italians singing on balconies and of the weekly applause in recognition of key workers will be recorded in historical accounts of this period. These performative acts, like the individual displays of talent from Patrick Stewart reading a sonnet a day or Yo-Yo Ma offering concerts for viewers on line, are expressly social and positive messages.
In the case of education, the effects of COVID-19 will come out over many years. As UCL professors Lyndsey Macmillan and Francis Green have shown, lockdown has set back opportunities for learning, and children from certain regions and backgrounds have been worst affected. Students entering and leaving higher education will now face additional challenges as they attempt to secure jobs in a shrinking market.
All this is happening as we continue to learn more about the differential effects of COVID-19, such as the disproportionate toll it has taken on black and minority ethnic groups living in the UK, and the multiple ways in which it may disable its victims. The support organisation COVID-19 Care Central has been working with students to contextualise the pandemic, recognising that this is not simply a healthcare emergency, but a crisis that has fostered new challenges and aggravated longstanding inequalities.
We want to hear what lessons students have drawn from this episode; how they draw connections between their own learning and the current crisis
As such, this presents students with an extraordinary learning opportunity: to acknowledge the flaws in our systems that the pandemic has highlighted, and to find a voice in ensuring that the world where they’ve grown up is not the same one where they’ll grow old. As Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz commented, the crisis has not only exposed weaknesses in our public health systems but the fragility of the global economy as well. There will be immense challenges for further generations.
There are many creative ways for students to take on this problem. We all have knowledge to draw upon and a range of talents and modes of communication available, but we recognise that for some, learning to apply this knowledge is a difficult task. Some systems, like the International Baccalaureate programme, reward students who are able to apply and extend their learning. This skill, placing textbook knowledge in the larger context of our interconnected globe, is key to considering what we can learn from the coronavirus. After all, it is this global scale that presents both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for us to build a better post-pandemic world. At the university level we often see this described as ‘evidence of original thinking’. It is an ambition but also a most rewarding achievement. Who doesn’t want to be original?
As educators and students, it is our responsibility to open doors to others in the hope that they will be able to make sense of their world around them too. That’s why we are launching a competition aimed at students in a time of COVID, with our partners openDemocracy, Schoolzone and the UCL Student’s Union. We want to hear what lessons students have drawn from this episode; how they draw connections between their own learning and the current crisis; and especially to see their vison for a better world post-COVID. Prizes include a personalised package of mentoring, books and the opportunity to have your work featured on openDemocracy’s website.
This isn’t ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and entrants do not need to sing from a balcony or recite Shakespeare. You just have to upload an image, video or short text to share your vision. The crisis is not just about how we manage public health systems, but also how we set our priorities, to inform how we want to live. That includes protecting against the spread of harmful infectious ideas and sharing messages of solidarity and creativity.