Universities must be at the forefront of creating new meaning post-pandemic

The new social order will require thought leadership, free enquiry and interdisciplinarity, says Susan Lea

May 23, 2020

The global pandemic of Covid-19 has undermined our view of the world in substantial and profound ways. The familiar has become unfamiliar; the safe seems unsafe; and certainty has been replaced by uncertainty.

This is not going to be a temporary condition. Rather, the impact and implications of this crisis stretch far into the future. While there is inevitably a strong pull to return to the way things were, the spectre of economic recession, the “new normal” and a “second wave” all mean this will be impossible.

There will also be new opportunities to make positive changes.

Universities need to rise to this challenge with a contribution that needs to extend well beyond the immediate, vital research into vaccination and treatment and the training of front-line professionals.

Crucially, universities are at the forefront of sense-making. Moving from crisis to recovery requires the creation of new meaning and the development of new stories, to help all of society, from decision-makers to children, cope with information overload. And to provide valid pictures of how and why things happen, and the policy options available.

Covid-19 has challenged the very fabric of our society. Could we have imagined schools closed, citizens confined to their homes, stable businesses on the brink of collapse, and human interaction as a predominantly virtual activity?

The drive to make sense of the world around us is an innate human behaviour. Faced with complexity, ambiguity and changing information, we naturally seek to understand and interpret events in a way that fits with our own existing knowledge, experiences, emotional responses and memories.

However one frames it, the paradigm has shifted; the world has shifted on its axis. It might not be unreasonable to talk of “collective trauma” – the potential outcome of a situation that begins with some level of catastrophe, as defined by the Israeli professor of social work Michal Shamai. Times of crisis intensify our need to make sense of things. That sense-making needs to be thoughtful, independent and evidence-based, not the stuff of fake facts and scaremongering. This will require the freedom to ask difficult questions about whether our response has been correct and what the UK should do in the future with regard to planning for future similar events.

A strong theme of loss is at the heart our collective experience of Covid-19. Many have lost loved ones; the current death toll stands at potentially over 35,000 people in the UK. Others will have lost livelihoods. The Bank of England has warned that unemployment could double by spring; the numbers of people accessing food banks and income support has gone up; the Resolution Foundation fears that an additional 640,000 18- to 24-year-olds could find themselves unemployed this year alone.

Uncertainty, anxiety and social isolation have compromised psychological well-being, and a rise in mental health issues has been recorded. An Ipsos Mori survey recently revealed increased levels of anxiety and fear of suffering mentally as a result of Covid-19. Over half of the population’s responses about mental illness were about anxiety.

A survey by the mental health charity Mind reported that people with mental health problems are ending up in crisis because they were unable to access help, and are therefore at a higher risk of suicide. And further afield, in the US, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45 per cent of adults reported the pandemic to have affected their mental health, with 19 per cent saying it has had a major impact.

The most pressing risk is that the “new normal” involves the growth of fear, suspicion and hate. A threefold rise in hate crimes directed at people of Chinese origin has been reported by the police. Universities must protect their freedoms to challenge received wisdom and entrenched authority if that is where the evidence takes them.

But, of equal importance, this period has seen genuine positives. Unprecedented individual and collective acts of human kindness, self-sacrifice and care. Thousands of trainee nurses and doctors have graduated early in order to enter the NHS at this time of need. Neighbours are supporting vulnerable members of their community. And organisations have come together to respond to the crisis more quickly and effectively than would previously have been thought possible.

Understanding the new social order and its potential opportunities and risks requires thought leadership, sound research, interdisciplinary teams, and collaboration and partnership. All this in an atmosphere of free enquiry and freedom of speech. This is what universities do.

Most of us were drawn to the world of academia through a desire to serve the public good, to play a role (however small) in transforming individual lives and positively impacting society, to work with others to serve our communities and make the world a better place.

So now is the time to step forward and to step up, for universities to help make sense of this new world, to reconstruct our future and to help build resilience and hope. On the journey to a new “normality”, that new narrative should draw on the positives that have emerged through the dark days of this crisis, integrating this new sense of national purpose into an understanding of how to build a better future.

Susan Lea is vice-chancellor of the University of Hull.

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