A long view on COVID-19

Josep Pla i Casadevall was a Spanish journalist and author who wrote in the language of his native Catalonia. A while ago, I picked up a translation of his journals from 1918-19, when he was a student in his early 20s. The university he was attending was shut due to the influenza pandemic, so he whiled away his days and nights at home and in the cafés of his home town.

When Pla’s university reopened in early 1919, he returned to Barcelona and reunited with friends and fellow students. He wrote in his journal, “We greet one another with the usual noisy glee but keep our distance, as ever – a distance that seems so small, yet is perhaps quite considerable.” (1)

While I was reading Pla, COVID-19 arrived. Even as I digest our university’s evolving plan for responding to the pandemic, I know that this event will not be anything like the so-called Spanish flu. The current pandemic is serious, but the world has changed. Governments and organizations, including my own university, are taking decisive action to slow it down and prevent disaster. Individuals are making behavioural changes to keep their families and communities safe. Disruptions to routine will be severe, but brief. Millions of lives will be saved.

It is too early to eulogize this virus. But the lesson I’ve already drawn from this event is that humanity is perfectly capable of mobilizing against any threat. Despite abundant evidence, we are not our own worst enemies. We harm the earth, we are xenophobic, we make bad choices at the ballot box – yet we manage to engage in collective action for the greater good.

Remember climate change? That thing we seemed too mired in inaction to deal with? Measures unthinkable in normal times have already come to pass. By choice or force, nations and individuals alike have altered behaviours and made hard decisions.

COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary and will be undone when life returns to normal. What’s more interesting to me is how quickly the status quo can change. How people’s mindsets and behaviours can change. Yes, we are capable of swift, coordinated action, informed by science and motivated by concern for our fellow citizens.

Universities are founded on the idea that human progress is possible. But progress is never inevitable. It requires work. Some of that work takes place in the university. Climate change can be addressed through gentler measures than we are employing against COVID-19, but they must be sustained over many years.

We can do this, if we absorb this lesson of hope in humanity. As I dust off our unit’s business continuity plan, it is this, more than anything else, that tells me why business continuity is important.

Notes

1. “The Gray Notebook,” by Josep Pla, NYRB Classics, New York, 2014, pp. 320-321

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