This is the first in a series of webinars on Shaping the Post-COVID World, organised by the Institute for the Future of Knowledge on the initiative of the Vice Chancellor’s Office at the University of Johannesburg.
You need to register to watch this live, and it will be posted as a recording afterwards. Register here: https://universityofjohannesburg.us/4ir/covid-19/
Historians distinguish two ends to a pandemic: the biological end, consisting in the eradication or control of the disease, and the social end, when people stop fearing the disease and society resumes its normal shape. The “Post-COVID World” may never come from a biological perspective, and some are also saying that it may never come from a social perspective either – that the world will never be the same again. Whatever the case, it is clear that the pandemic that took us by surprise was in fact highly predictable, and indeed predicted by the World Health Organisation, the former President of the United States, and many others. It is, moreover, anything but unprecedented. Sometimes, we cannot predict; but other times, we can, but don’t. Whatever the Post-COVID World is like, our first lesson must be to think more carefully and openly about the future – starting with the Post-COVID World itself.
Our first panelist, Her Excellency Dr Joyce Banda, founded and leads the People’s Party in Malawi. She was President of Malawi 2012-2014. She is an advocate for the rights of women and children, two groups who have been disproportionately affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic despite being less at risk from the disease itself. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, with over half the population living in poverty and a quarter in extreme poverty (food insecurity and malnutrition), with significant dependence on foreign aid, rendering it vulnerable to global economic downturn. The human consequences of economic downturn will linger in Malawi and elsewhere long after the lockdowns in Europe and America have eased. When the world looks to the future, it must bear these consequences in mind.
Professor Johan Giesecke is an infectious disease epidemiologist, and the scientist masterminding the Swedish response. He has advocated focusing on what comes next – most strikingly, when he asked Australia whether it intended to keep its borders shut for 30 years, in the unlikely event it succeeded in eradicating the virus within them. Contrasting with the “lockdowns” implemented in many countries, the Swedish approach has been to focus on evidence-based (rather than precautionary) interventions to slow the spread of disease, and on protecting vulnerable groups. This is sometimes referred to as a “herd immunity” strategy, which is inaccurate; protecting the vulnerable is the goal, while herd immunity is a by-product of any strategy short of eradication. The Swedish approach stands in contrast to lockdowns pursued in many European countries, and is motivated in part by an eye on the medium and long term future.
Professor Sehaam Khan is a microbiologist and Dean of Health Sciences at the University of Johannesburg. Under lockdown, South African universities have moved to online delivery of teaching. Opinions differ as to how successful this is proving, and how sustainable it may be. Not all students are able to access online resources, and not all subjects are amenable to online teaching. Disciplines requiring hands-on training, including some medical disciplines and laboratory sciences, are heavily impacted by lockdown. Much more than schools, universities mix generations, and while evidence suggests that schools can be reopened without much risk, there is little evidence about universities. The sector will need to think ahead, bringing together health expertise with a deep understanding nature of the university and its and societal role, in order to emerge strong from the chaos.