Let me begin by citing the example of American intelligence agencies, that collected a humongous range of facts about Joseph Stalin, yet never fully grasped the depth of his authoritarianism. The historian Robert Conquest had once made a fascinating observation, social sciences, he said, dealt with facts but facts do not always add up to insight or perspective. But literature had the power to expose authoritarianism in a way social science could not.
While confronting the crisis of COVID-19, we face a similar situation. A literary colleague of mine complained that COVID-19 was a failure of storytelling. Here is a catastrophe on the epic scale of a novel and yet all one got were PDF policy documents and newspaper jottings. In fact, my friend added that the COVID-19 pandemic had the scale of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with every crisis to be that of a tale of strategy and leadership. We must see the virus, not just as a fact of biology, but as a piece of the cosmos, and find the language to articulate the relationship.
It demands the intensity of a Fyodor Dostoevsky to understand the tortuous psychology of emotions that haunted it. The departments of psychology, sociology, political science, mass communication, and literature could have collectively conceptualized, planned studies, and designed research to understand the cataclysm that society was experiencing. However, academically and intellectually, we made no effort to respond to the pandemic.
I recall the never-ending debate that kept the university community occupied- whether we should have online or offline examinations. Universities have never ever looked so disconnected from the real world, campuses never so stark and teaching never so vacuous. We all are pretending normalcy when the world in which we are located is collapsing.
Universities did not feel the need to initiate discourse and dialogue about the unparalleled challenge that this pandemic had thrown at us. We did not exchange notes. Private universities/colleges, with much smaller classes and much more resources, proudly claimed that they were satisfied with their online experience. I wonder how did we even reach that conclusion? Was there a study conducted? Did we jointly think about it?
If you go to few eminent websites of the associations and commissions of Indian universities/ academicians, it gives the appearance that this is just another day in our lives. There are sections informing us of discussions about the National Education Policy, Access and Equity, and vocational education. Then there are also websites that are busy warning students against ragging, boasting about good research practices, women’s safety, and the equivalence of degrees. When I move from these sites to my phone, I see messages crying for oxygen and hospitals.
It is surreal that when one is engaging a class, suddenly receives a message flashing that the person for whom you were trying to arrange oxygen has just passed away. How does one reach that state of equanimity in which you continue reciting ethics of journalism, and at the same time fighting the thought gnawing your heart that this death was not inevitable, that this death was an act of injustice? How does one develop a pedagogy that can address this sense of failure, of struggle against institutionalized injustice?
This is a task we as researchers and academicians must undertake because we jointly have failed to rise to the crisis. I end here with an appeal to stop, to take a pause, to collect all our resources, and face this moment with brutal honesty.