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Public scholarship is a portal: Thinking with care through the pandemic and beyond

May 1, 2020
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By Aryana Soliz

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"The pandemic is a portal… We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks of dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."

- Arundhati Roy

How can we possibly sum up a year of public scholarship that is ending amid such a devastating global pandemic? This is a time of enormous grief and shock. Our minds and nervous systems are still racing as we try to grasp the scale of the current crisis. Experts are already speculating that we are witnessing the end of the economy as we know it, as well as massive changes in social interactions. In this context, public scholarship is clearly gaining new relevance. This is also a time that calls for reflection on public scholarship and our academic paradigms—a time when we need to slow down thinking and proceed with care.

Historically, pandemics have pushed the world to make lasting changes, and we have yet to see what will come in the aftermath of COVID-19. As Arundhati Roy elucidates, the pandemic is a portal: a chance to let go of unhealthy baggage and imagine the world anew. If we are to see public scholarship as a part of this portal, as a gateway between this world and the next, then how can we tread lightly and carefully? What types of academic knowledge should we bring with us, and what baggage no longer serves us?

Making sense of the pandemic?

The number of global cases of COVID-19 has risen exponentially to over 2.5 million, with over 170,000 deaths, and these are only the confirmed cases. As we try to make sense of the pandemic, we often turn to statisticians and public-health experts for answers: When will the cases peak in each country? Should we prepare for additional peaks? When will a vaccine be ready? How can we go back to hugging our friends, standing in crowded spaces or sending our kids to daycare?

Amid a great deal of fear and confusion, public scholarship is offering important insights into the pandemic, including the vital role that we all must play in staying home to save lives. Public scholar Naghmeh Bandari, for example, has written on why timely and accurate diagnosis of COVID-19 is crucial, and why funding agencies should prioritize looking into the potentials of new technologies in the global fight against viral outbreaks.

Ecologists and Epidemiologists have further highlighted how the climate crisis is heightening our vulnerability to a wide array of infectious diseases ranging from Ebola, to Zika, to Coronavirus. The massive habitat loss caused by deforestation and environmental degradation, they explain, leads to the emergence and re-emergence microbial pathogens, many of which stem from wildlife. Rather than blaming wild animals for deadly illnesses, specialists note that microbes generally reside harmlessly in wildlife. The decimation of forests through human/industrial activity, however, opens news corridors for pathogens to adapt to the human body.

These findings suggest that, if we have any hope of preventing the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 in the future, we will have to completely rethink and reshape our relationship to forests. While epidemiologists are key to unpacking these relationships, these issues

underscore the need for broad-based engagement with a variety of academic disciplines and wider communities. Addressing the ongoing socio-ecological crisis requires new forms of collaboration, new ways of thinking and engaging with environments, and much more comprehensive responses to the climate catastrophe.

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How can we think with care through the pandemic and beyond?

In the article “Ethnography in late industrialism,” Kim Fortun explains that we live in a time of “degraded infrastructure, exhausted paradigms, and the incessant chatter of new media.”

The coronavirus pandemic exemplifies these issues by exposing enormous ruptures in the economic system and demonstrating the need for universal health care and environmental justice. Individualistic ways of thinking are no longer capable of grappling with intricacies of our interdependent world.

While public scholarship clearly has great potential in helping to reimagine the world, there is also a danger of reproducing exhausted and inequitable paradigms. With the neoliberalization of our universities, we are faced with an increasing emphasis on academic ‘competitiveness,’ and we risk pursuing higher quantities of research at the expense of quality public engagement. Anti-colonial scholars have long spoken out against fast-paced academic agendas and have warned of the dangers of research extractivism: a process through which researchers essentially mine local communities for data with little regard for the ongoing needs and struggles of people on the ground.

As public scholars, many of us are already feeling pressure to produce more, and to relate our research topics immediately to the pandemic. Clearly there are connections that we will explore in the years to come, but we also need to approach what may become a ‘pandemic turn’ in academic research with caution. Comprehensive and ethically-sound research is not something that can be rapidly ‘ordered up,’ and we should be cautious about trying to mass-produce answers to the world’s current health dilemma based on business-as-usual approaches. Sometimes, in the midst of crisis and confusion, the best thing we can do is learn to ask better and more pertinent questions.

How will the pandemic change patterns of mobility of immobility?

One of the things I have been asked to commentate on is how the pandemic will impact transit patterns. The coronavirus has already massively altered the way people move and stay in place, and we have yet to see what lasting changes it will bring.

As people across the globe shelter in place, megacities such as Los Angles and New Delhi have reported brilliantly clear skies and the longest spells of clean air on record. The parks by my house in Verdun are full of people enjoying walks and bike rides—all while adhering to social distancing guidelines to stop the spread of the virus. These are signs of hope. Some scholars have speculated that changes brought on by coronavirus could help to tackle climate change. Will we, for example, see people continue to avoid car driving, living simpler lives closer to home, and opting for more sustainable mobility options?

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There are also a number of reasons why need to raise critical questions on the pandemic’s new mobilities. How, for example,  will the immobilities brought on by the pandemic affect more severely those who are facing job, housing and food insecurity? Will widespread germaphobia lead to a decrease in bikesharing and public-transit ridership (even once a vaccine is developed), as well as government divestments from public transit? To what extent will the pandemic cause a massive rise in automobility? How might these processes exacerbate the climate crisis and existing transportation inequalities?

For me, thinking with care through the current pandemic highlights the need to better understand and address these inequalities and exclusions; it compels a speculative commitment to neglected things.

Reimaging public scholarship

If we are to see public scholarship, like the pandemic, as a portal, then we need to slow down our thinking and reflect profoundly. It’s time to think carefully about the world that we want to co-create, who is being included and excluded from the discussions, and how can we make the process more equitable? How can we begin to ask better questions, reimagine academic scholarship, and be prepared to work for a healthier and more socially just world?


About the author

Aryana Soliz profile2

Aryana Soliz is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. For twelve years she worked as a project coordinator for various non-profit organizations in Canada and in Latin America. In 2017, she helped co-found the Concordia Ethnography Lab,an interdisciplinary initiative aimed at promoting innovative ethnographic research. Her doctoral research focuses on cycling infrastructures and mobility justice in small and intermediate cities. Her research has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


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