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What Have We Learned?

By Robert van der Eyken
What Have We Learned?

Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash

In March 2009, in Monterrey Mexico, we closed school for two weeks due to the H1N1 Swine Flu. I could see it coming and asked our teachers to prepare, with the technology available at the time, for on-line learning, ensuring that although school was closed it was not a vacation for anyone.

When we returned to campus, a mother of a younger student came up to me and hysterically cried, “I was not prepared to have my children at home for two weeks!”  I felt sorry for her. I thought, wow, two weeks in a comfortable home with her kids, with internet, electricity, food, and water and she was acting like she had just survived a war.

Since then, the world has seen devastating tsunamis, earthquakes, drought, a whole range of natural disasters, and the regrettable continuation of human-caused suffering through war and discrimination. Now, 12 years after hearing that mother’s exasperated complaints about a two-week school closure, I sit here contemplating reopening another school after a far more devastating and long-lasting health crisis. And I ask, what have we learned?

I love being a school administrator but my true passions are history and geography, so I tend to view events from both a historical and global perspective. COVID-19 is bad, impacting far too many people’s lives with respect to health and the economy. But it is not an existential threat. It is an opportunity to learn and take current lessons and apply them to future challenges, be those future pandemics or much more grave challenges such as the continuing threat of nuclear war, climate change, global resource depletion, and rising global inequality.

While we all have been understandably focused on the current pandemic, nations continue to build up the threat of global armed conflict and world leaders resuscitate the hateful ghosts of nationalism and bigotry. Not even a deadly virus has stopped armed conflict. Have we not the ability to learn to embrace differences, respect others and most importantly value human life in all its beautiful shapes and colours?

While the pandemic has temporarily reduced our carbon footprints with less travel and consumption, will we learn from this temporary hiatus from our consumer culture to enjoy living with less and caring more for our planet? Or will it be, once this is over, full-steam ahead in the race to defile our planet, our only viable home? People talk about Mars being an alternative for when we ruin the Earth. I shake my head in disbelief. Do any of us have a chance of being the few select Elon Musks who will find sanctuary on such an oasis? 

While the pandemic has forced students at Academia Cotopaxi to learn from a distance, have we come to a better understanding of the impact of the growing inequality in wealth in a world where just eight individuals, many known by name and idolized, possess more money than 50 percent or 3.8 billion of the world’s population? The pandemic has had a real but probably temporary impact on people like ourselves. Its effect on the poorest, most marginalized members of society is perhaps irreversible. Cotopaxi students continue to learn but hundreds of millions of students are not receiving any true instruction and may never return to school, thus further deepening the divide between haves and have nots.

I hope we come out of this with lessons learned that may help us move forward. It has been fantastic to see how fast science can move when people collaborate. We’ve seen a breaking down of silos between scientists, laboratories, and institutions, between universities and pharmaceutical companies worldwide. Structural biologists are talking to virologists who are talking to medical practitioners. This is the way we should do all science moving forward. It is as much about building connections between people as the hard science itself.

Today, we know a lot more about viruses than we did a year ago, particularly about COVID-19, including how viruses spread and how to prevent this. Today the risks with respect to COVID-19 are mostly about behavior, particularly the use of masks and social distancing. The surges we have seen have predictably occurred in places with the most at-risk behavior. It may be thought that the virus is a great teacher, but that has not been proven true. Fire is a great teacher: Touch it and it hurts like hell. With COVID-19, a person or a community can act irresponsibly and do fine for a while, confirming the belief that precautions are for wimps. By the time they feel the fire, it’s too late.

Can we learn from these lessons, our successes and errors in managing this pandemic, to address even bigger problems now and in the future? I hope and pray we do. Perhaps, if we truly learn from this experience, we will pay fitting tribute to and honour the near two million people who have lost their lives and the countless millions who have suffered in so many ways through this past year with COVID-19.

So what have we learned? Only the future will truly tell.

Robert van der Eyken is the Director of Academia Cotopaxi in Quito, Ecuador. He has been an international educator for over 25 years including leadership of schools in Mexico, China and Morocco.

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