IDEA Blog

Development Education and Covid-19

06/05/20

Development Education and Covid-19

The coronavirus has created a climate of uncertainty and fear. People may be ill or vulnerable, in nursing homes or hospitals, cocooning, or affected by the economic crisis. People in countries without effective healthcare systems are exposed and vulnerable. Access to medicine and the ability to self-isolate or socially-distance are unavailable to many people. This is a crisis of inequality. The coronavirus was not created by inequality, but this crisis is exacerbated and propagated by inequality.

How can we react as a Development Education community to this situation? What roles should civil society and Development Education play in responding to this pandemic? What roles should we play after the pandemic?

These are questions which we are all asking ourselves. Trying to answer them, while responding to this rapidly changing situation, is difficult. At IDEA we believe that we need to explore these questions together. This piece is a starting point. We will be creating spaces for IDEA members to explore these questions together during the coming weeks and months.

Isolation and Isolationism

Covid-19 effects Development Education in multiple and complex ways. Paradox and uncertainty seem to be defining features of these. The responses to the coronavirus strengthen both the things we are working for (collective action, solidarity, working together for the greater good) and the things we are working against (isolationism, closing borders, inequality, separating different parts of the world). There is a thin line between self-isolation and isolationism. But there is also a thin line between collective community action and collective global action. This is one of those moments where the veil between worlds is thin and where possibilities can travel like ghosts between the world as it was before and world that will be, the ‘new normal’.

Misanthropy and Community

The virus makes us both misanthropic and a community. How we define that community, and how we deal with misanthropy and fear, are crucial questions for this moment. Development Education can help us answer them.

The virus makes us act like misanthropes. We are learning to see other people as a source of danger. We are told to avoid other people. While this is based on the central paradox of this situation, that to stay together we need to stay apart, we are nonetheless learning to relate to other people as a danger to ourselves, our families, our communities. This can be twisted into racist or nativist sentiments and messages. This is an important moment for us in Development Education to counter these narratives, to challenge these assumptions and to renew our connections with anti-racism, intercultural education and global struggles against inequality. We have to help people to see that the only solution to this crisis is collective and interdependent action, locally, nationally and internationally. 

The virus also makes us a community. We are contributing to a collective effort the like of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. All of us together are flattening the curve. We are all supporting families, neighbours, loved ones and strangers. “We must love one another or die” as W.H. Auden starkly put it in September 1st, 1939.  But does this community fray when we stray beyond our borders? Does it apply to everyone everywhere? When it comes to competition for scarce PPE or medicines, do we want our country to get what others cannot? Some political leaders have been stoking these sentiments of division, and the competition for PPE has been compared to piracy. If the sense of community does fray, and unravels at our borders, we will condemn others to suffer more deeply from this virus and we will condemn ourselves to suffer from it for longer. As UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierez said “we are only as strong as our weakest health system”. Dr Tony Holohan echoed this on RTÉ radio recently when he said “Everything that has to be done … has to be done by everybody.” We are a global community. Development Education educates people about our role in this global community. This is our strength. This is an important moment for us to do what we do best and enable people to take action within our global community.

Points of Light

In the same poem Auden also wrote about “points of light” flashing out in the night of a crisis.

“Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages”

WH Auden, September 1st, 1939

We are already seeing many of these points of light when action is taken together and with purpose. Collective action has been renewed and has taken on new forms. Some of this has been state-led, like our self-isolating, cocooning and social distancing, and the focusing of state systems onto health and social protection. Some has been citizen-led; people clapping and singing on their doorsteps for healthcare workers, buying groceries for older people, sharing educational tools online. There has been an outpouring of sharing, creativity and community in the initial response to this crisis.

Policies that seemed impossible are now done, from rent freezes to a combined healthcare system to a massive mobilisation of social protection. That opens new possibilities in politics and in society. It will be much more difficult to argue that it is impossible to make changes like these when we have seen so many of them happen in such a short space of time. 

People now have direct personal experience of many of the issues we speak about in Development Education; interdependence, inequality and how the status quo protects some and exposes other to greater dangers, the importance of basic needs like running water and food supplies, the importance of in-person schooling. Things that have been invisible or taken for granted have been made visible to vast numbers of people.

Although we are “defenceless under the night” we are creating “points of light”. Our work in Development Education is central to this; sharing solutions from all parts of the world, celebrating active citizenship, educating and enabling people to take action that will create more and more points of light. 

Paradox, Perspectives and Global Citizenship

Paradox is one of the defining features of our response to this virus. We are isolating to strengthen society. It has turned everything on its head. It has turned our assumptions and beliefs as civil society on their heads. It is difficult to understand it, and immensely difficult to know how to react to it. Our old ways of working, which were relevant a few weeks ago, now seem obsolete. They may still be the way to react to this situation, or we may need new ways or new combinations. We do not have the answers, we probably do not even have the questions yet.

In Development Education we are accustomed to paradox, we are comfortable with discomfort, we are schooled in the pedagogy of discomfort. We must fall back on that, and magnify our ability to explore paradox, contradiction and divergence while maintaining our focus on the better world which we are driven to create. We know that exploring different perspectives engenders different solutions. This crisis has scrambled our perspectives. We can be at once alone and social. Healthy people are being told to act as if we are ill. In our online meetings we are there and not there. Perhaps that understanding and accepting of multiple perspectives and multiple voices is our way through? (Maybe it is instructive that one of the most famous works of pandemic literature, the Decameron, is made up of a hundred stories of a fractured time and a world turned upside down?)  Our ability to explore paradox and different perspectives is needed in this situation, now and in the aftermath of this pandemic.

Political choices will determine the future that follows this crisis as well as the immediate response. Equality, global citizenship and sustainability must be the drivers of these choices. This crisis has shown how important global citizenship is for all of us no matter where we are in the world. Everywhere we look, we can see people being active global citizens. As a Development Education community we have the ability to facilitate and articulate this drive for participation by all people in a more just and equal world. It is important that we bring this to the global effort to tackle this crisis. We must engage politically and work to ensure that global citizenship – which is being shown by individuals and communities everywhere – is at the heart of the national and international political response to this crisis and its aftermath.

As a Development Education community we have many of the tools we need to address and understand this situation, and to find the possibilities in this impossible situation. We need to draw on our strengths, to start with what we do so well, and to create and invent new configurations, combinations, and approaches as we do so. We are facing two challenges, the challenge of the present and the challenge of the future. Both will be immensely difficult. Both will also create new possibilities. We need to be ready and willing to pursue these possibilities, these ghosts of the future. We no longer know what the future is and that opens many other possible futures.  We need to use our tools and strengths to build the future that we want within all this uncertainty and fear, and, as Auden said, “Show an affirming flame”.

This blog is written by Frank Geary, Director of IDEA. Image Credit: Martin Sanchez