“Epidemic” is an old word, but “pandemic” is rather new. I learned this while reading an interview with my colleague, Gautam Menon, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka. He pointed out that while an epidemic spans a particular geographic location, a pandemic is global, spanning multiple regions around the world.
The WHO introduced the word “pandemic” while trying to persuade countries to take serious measures against the threat of COVID-19.
A pandemic is an epidemic globalized, a disease on a jet plane. Before a pandemic, an epidemic feels like the rosy memory of slower times when humankind travelled less, when international borders were less porous.
As many have already started to say, a pandemic as this feels like an inevitable backlash to globalization and the “excesses” of industrial and post-industrial “progress.” Without entering the complex debate about whether or not this is a fallout of certain kinds of lifestyle and certain modes of wealth-production, it is more or less clear that COVID-19 is a disease originating with the rich and the upper-middle class, particularly in the context of developing nations where easy international mobility is still primarily reserved for the elite. When the news of the resident of Mumbai’s Dharavi township testing positive with Coronavirus came to the fore – possibly the first Indian person below the middle-class to be reported with this disease – it was also established that he got it from his employer, who had a history of recent international travel.
Of the many things that have been globalized in India, higher education is right there at the top. It’s been a long haul all the way from British India – from old imperial ventures like the Rhodes Scholarship and late-colonial rites of studying law in England to the rites of SAT and GMAT and the soaring ambition of IIT-graduates, all the way to students edged out in domestic admission races now looking to pay their way into institutes of questionable reputation overseas. It’s now been well over a century that the middle-class and above have imagined academic and career ambition as inseparable from going abroad.
Will a pandemic as this one radically alter the course of international education? Will that be a short-term or a long-term redrawing of the map? These are the questions now foremost in the mind, not only of Indian students and their parents, but of their counterparts worldwide.
World-travelling students have faced various kinds of threats and hostilities before, most recently, those rooted in the fear of terrorism that have placed Muslim students from various parts of the world under a toxic cloud. Students from China – and other East-Asian countries for the racists who can’t tell the difference – have been bearing the current racial burden of the Corona threat as hashtags like #Chinavirus trend on social media. But we are stupid if we think it will merely affect individual communities. This time, the pandemic is blind. It will affect us all.
Where do we stand now? Is the future of international study and academic careers under a threat of a whole new order? Is the threat bio-technological, or will it be, in the end, human-enforced?
My last social visit before the lockdown was at the home of a Belgian colleague in south Delhi. As we sat chatting, a Belgian student showed up; she had come to stay with my colleague’s family. Spring Break was almost over; the pandemic, and a possible lockdown looming ahead, had unleashed chaos on campus, literally forcing a mass exodus. That worked for the domestic students; for those with homes oceans apart, not so fast. What were they to do, where to go?
Ashoka has a sizeable international student population, so this was the beginning of a bleak worry. Since then, thank goodness, situations have stabilized on campus. While most of it looks deserted and classes have fully shifted online, many international students, including a sizeable group from African countries, have stayed back, and campus services have been operating for them, albeit with minimal staff support.
But from Indian students looking outward, the prime locations of study abroad are also the worst-affected locations now – Europe, UK, and now especially the US. More or less all American colleges and universities have now suspended on-campus life and have moved online wherever possible. Semesters are being marked Pass/Fail only. Faculty appointments have been frozen or even withdrawn; tenure-clocks are being rewired. A large number of graduating high-school seniors have revised their college plans. And these are only the immediate effects. The longer-term consequence of the pandemic on the already-embattled Anglo-American academia is still impossible to predict.
What does it all mean? One option, as it has now become clear worldwide, is remote and online learning. But it is one thing to go home and access your class online with your peers (and your erstwhile roommate) appearing in little zoom boxes on your digital screen; quite another to suddenly see your plan of experiencing a new country and culture slide into your laptop. But is that trend irreversible?
Anurag Bhaskar, who graduated from Harvard Law School and is currently a faculty member at Jindal Global Law School, worries about the possible long-term consequences of the pandemic, which, he feels, is likely to adversely affect people’s willingness to travel internationally. As students stare a future with severe restrictions “on the full experience” of global education, students will be unwilling to invest significant funds for it. “To even think,” he says, “that Harvard asked its international students to vacate the premises within a week in a midnight email, is very disturbing.” “I would have been helpless and resource less,” he confesses, “if I had been doing my LLM this year. I feel mentally exhausted to even think about the situation in which current international students are living.”
The universities stand to lose as much, if not more. Revenue from international tuition is like that of First and Business Class in flights, the real fuel to the machinery for many institutions. And some disciplines, one imagines, will bear the brunt heavier – notably the hard sciences, which rely heavily on international graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for their daily sustenance.
Hopefully, the world will reach a normal again, though a wounded normal it will be. As the current year goes, universities may want to defer offers of admission (and financial aid), or at least consider this year’s admitted applicants in a special pool with next year’s applicants, should the former not be able to matriculate in the autumn. Students unable to go abroad this year may want to spend the year in local/online learning and/or work. The Corona-shaped hole in the career is going to go down in history as universal shorthand, so in some ways, there is nothing to worry about.
Like any other crises, this one, too offers important lessons. These lessons are not merely bio-technological, but also ethical. Perhaps the most crucial is the brittleness of our communal identities, how easily we descend into racism, into religious othering. Be it #Chinavirus, the vitriol poured on students from the northeast here in India, or the suddenly entitled Islamophobia that, after the infections stemming from Delhi’s Nizamuddin gathering, is quick to ascribe a particular mode of destructive behavior on a particular community.
(With research input by Harshita Tripathi)
Saikat Majumdar writes about arts, literature, and higher education, and is the author of several books, including, College: Pathways of Possibility. @_saikatmajumdar.
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