Category Archives: Voices

Going Feral at Home: Reducing Academic Air Travel in a Post-COVID World

June 11, 2021
By 24438

Dr. Trisia Farrelly, a 2004 Sylff fellow, writes about a series of “nearly carbon neutral” conferences organized by Massey University’s Political Ecology Research Centre, of which she is co-director. The online format of these conferences, established prior to the pandemic, presents an opportunity to reduce academics’ significant contribution to carbon emissions from international air travel.

 * * *

A glimmer of light amidst the devastating fallout of COVID-19 may be seen in temporary global carbon emission reductions. While longer-term reductions are needed to see any impact on climate change, the Global Carbon Project reports that the mass grounding of flights during the peak of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic saw CO2 emissions from aviation drop by up to 60%. Across the board, and on average, the emissions of individual countries decreased by 26%. Academics contribute significantly to carbon emissions from international air travel. As an academic located in one of the most geographically isolated countries in the world, Aotearoa (New Zealand), the pandemic has forced me to critically reflect on my own air travel and that of my university. 

 

Online conferences could significantly reduce air travel, which is a major source of carbon emissions.

Feral is the second of three online, nearly carbon neutral (international and free) conferences organized by Massey University’s Political Ecology Research Centre (PERC). The content of these conferences remains freely accessible on the PERC website. The first of these fully online conferences was The Lives and Afterlives of Plastic in 2017, and our latest conference was “Extraction in 2019. PERC did not organize one of these online conferences in 2020, even though this was the year academics found themselves grounded and when, one by one, face-to-face academic events were being canceled or indefinitely postponed all over the world. We felt that contributing to a conference in 2020 was likely to be low down on the list of priorities for most already stressed and overwhelmed academics. 

Feral was cited in Massey University’s Climate Action Plan 2020–2030 as an opportunity to reduce academic staff contributions to long-haul carbon emissions. The relatively novel format of these conferences at the time was featured in the London School of Economics blog site under the headline, “Running a Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference: Lessons from the Feral Conference.” We had no idea at the time that we would see variations of this online format proliferate under pandemic restrictions two years later—not just for conferences but to meet a wider range of needs to connect people digitally, from collegial “check-ins” to United Nations assemblies.

Peter Kalmus, climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Change Revolution, created the website NoFlyClimateSci (No Fly Climate Science)—a website dedicated to reducing academics’ carbon footprint from air travel. On the website, Kalmus states in reference to air travel, “Hour for hour, there’s no better way to burn fossil fuel and heat the planet.” There is good reason for the website’s focus on academics. Prior to the pandemic, flights taken by academics left large climate footprints. Ironically, many of these academics are climate scientists and others who teach, campaign for, and research environmental and social justice.  

Academics report traveling by air for many reasons, including a need for relationship building, exposure, access to resources, and primary data collection. They also fly in response to external drivers including funding requirements and cultural expectations, capacity building, marketing, and recruitment. Conversely, some researchers claim that air travel has little impact on academics’ success

Aotearoa is the most isolated temperate landmass in the world. This means that when Massey University staff travel internationally, it is often long haul. (Travel from Aotearoa to Australia and the Pacific Islands is considered “short haul”). COVID-19 has forced all Massey University academics to think very carefully about how and why we have traveled in the past and to consider future alternatives. In 2018, transport emissions represented 41% of Massey University’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of all the transport-related GHG emissions, 70% were the result of air travel. Seventy-five percent of these were long-haul flights, and most of these flights were taken by Massey’s academic staff.   

In March 2019, Massey University used the carbon offsetting plan FlyNeutral to offset the air travel undertaken with Air New Zealand the previous year. A total of 4,667 tons of carbon emissions were offset through this scheme. In September 2020, seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Sal Lampkin, Dr. Allanah Ryan, and Professor Robert McLachlan produced a paper titled “Re-evaluating the Purpose of International Air Travel” for Massey University’s Research Committee. The paper aims to inform university governance “so they can lead the discussion within their respective Colleges/constituencies regarding a university-wide re-evaluation of the purpose of Massey’s international air travel” and to “enable them to contribute to the development of a set of recommendations.” 

The paper presented the results of the analysis of staff travel for 2019. It reported that a total of 10,391 flights (domestic, short-haul, and long-haul) were made in 2019 alone and that 19% of this total (1,947 flights) were long-haul flights. These long-haul flights contributed 80% of total carbon emissions for all of Massey University’s air travel totaling 8,946,429 kg of carbon emissions. And many staff took multiple flights every year. In the College of Sciences alone, 318 staff traveled once or twice a year; 119 traveled two to five times per year; and 21 staff traveled five or more times per year (Lampkin, Ryan, and McLachlan 2020).  

Once the report had been released, the authors distributed surveys, conducted three focus groups, and collated individual staff responses. Academics who were asked what they felt about reducing their travel voiced concerns about losing the value of in-person interaction, including relationship building, overcoming cultural and language barriers, promotional opportunities, and access to resources, artifacts, technology, and expertise. Sixty-five percent of staff survey respondents were aware of Massey University’s Climate Action Plan 2020–2030, which commits us to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Recommendations in the Climate Action Plan for reducing carbon from air travel includes “attending sessions via Skype,” “batching travel so it happens only once in a year for long-haul travel rather than more frequently,” and “virtual conferences like [PERC’s] ‘Feral.’ ”

During the planning phase of our first “nearly carbon neutral” PERC conference, we sought to address some challenges identified. As a network of political ecologists and academics who teach, research, and campaign for social and environmental justice, we were concerned about the environmental impact of our conference, particularly considering the geographic isolation of our host institute. We also needed to ensure we did not exclude participants and presenters based on financial and resource inequities and the potential physical and temporal burdens the long-haul air travel to Aotearoa to attend a conference would mean for some. 

The formatting of the Lives and Afterlives of Plastic conference went some way to addressing these concerns: the conference required zero travel; there were zero conference fees; it was presented asynchronously over a three-week period, meaning presenters and participants could watch and respond when they were available; and time zones were a nonissue. Presenters were required to prerecord a video presentation to submit in advance of the conference. Comments and Q and A took place via an online chat function, and panel chairs kicked off and sustained online engagement in these online discussion forums. The asynchronous nature of the conference also eliminated the possibility of poor connections and lag times in live sessions where connection speeds varied.

Each new conference was designed with feedback from participants in mind. However, even the third offering of these conference formats, Extraction, did not eliminate all possible inequity issues. For example, there remained variation in the quality of the video presentations. This was likely a result of an unevenness across presenters’ access to quality equipment, high-speed Internet, and video production support. 

I have seen recent examples of such digital injustice, which may be more acute in synchronous meetings where delegates have much more to lose. One example is the United Nations Open-Ended Expert Group (OEEG) meetings, which were held in February 2021. Due to COVID-19, for the first time, Pacific Islands delegates had to attend these multi-day meetings online. The meetings ran from around 10 pm until 3 am, as our part of the world had once again received the “short end of the time-zone straw.” Pacific Islands delegates reported having to travel to offices from home late in the evening so that they could access faster Internet connections (and even then, connections were often unstable). The next morning many delegates still needed to fulfill their familial responsibilities—after very little sleep—three days in a row.

PERC encourages academics to view online innovations like Feral not only as a temporary solution to the travel limitations the pandemic presents but also as a long-term solution to our shared global carbon emissions problem. We are seeing a proliferation of similar innovative models emerge out of necessity since the pandemic outbreak. However, we need to recognize, meet, and mitigate any new challenges the online transition could present for diverse attendees. These challenges include the need for human and intellectually satisfying connection, building and maintaining trust and equitable access, and cultural and gender-based considerations. 

Normality Is an Illusion: Crisis Is Not

June 10, 2021
By 28804

In this article, 2020 Sylff fellow Amit Singh questions the concept of normality. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have redefined “normality” for India’s privileged classes, the very idea is an illusion for the marginalized, who live in permanent crisis. The pandemic, under which the state has done poorly in securing the basic needs of its vulnerable, “has exposed the fault lines of fragile Indian society,” says Singh.

* * *

The disruption of daily life, due to COVID-19 pandemic in India, reminded me of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shock decision in November, 2016 to scrap 86% of India’s currency (demonetisation); the abrupt disappearance of cash crippled supply chains and led to systemwide job cuts, which made life worse for the poorest in India—disrupted their normal lives—in a similar manner, this health pandemic is also affecting. Due to COVID, Indian state, like others, faced an abnormal situation-suspension of normality. What does normality mean for the marginalised Indian population? Whom does normality serve? We need to ask this question. Well, for the millions of daily wage workers ‘normality’ may be an illusion.

During the Indian lockdown, hundreds of inter-state migrant workers have died and disappeared from the surface of society without any trace. What normality would have meant for them, I just wonder! Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2020) thinks their lives were not an exception to normal situation. Daily wage labourers, vegetable sellers, poor farmers, street vendors, homeless people—all are part of this normality of exception. They have been living in dire situation—abnormal life—being normal for them. These people from abject spaces, as Julia Kristeva (1982) would call them, survive on meagre daily wages, face police violence and receive apathy of general society on a daily basis; possibly normality is just an illusion for them.

India’s nationwide lockdown amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has critically dislocated its migrant population. The pandemic is not a crisis situation clearly opposed to a normal situation; for thousands of inter-state migrant workers, unable to cope with hunger, were forced to walk to their villages, hundreds of kilometres, barefoot, with no food, and transportation shut down—with some dying during the journey—this crisis is permanent; they are not an exception of this so called normality. They have already felt the disruption of their daily lives so many times that ‘normality’ has lost meaning for them. Their lives have been hijacked by discourse of normality; making it appear that they are living a normal life like most of their compatriots. However, the fact is that they have been trapped in the circle of crisis by the State, by the Corporate, by the privileged middle classes. Mainly living in slums, they feel the crisis through extreme poverty, starvation, disease, and wage inequality; crisis, being an essential part of their lives, where the idea of ‘normal life’ is absent.

They are the invisible foundation of visible societies on which nation and state stand; from manual scavenging to farming, without them, Indian society would not function. For 450 million of India’s informal sector’s workers, life was never normal. Their existence mattered to the Indian State—I seriously doubt it. With no health insurance, poor working condition, crammed living conditions, lack of social security and low wages, their lives have always been in a permanent state of crisis—even in so called ‘normal times.’ During the lockdown, it was mainly the dead bodies of the hungry, the poor, the beggars, the unemployed, the migrant workers, women and children, were scattered all over the country. Even in normal times, they have been dying like that, due to starvation, lack of health care, malnourishment, burden of debt, state violence and caste discrimination. Nevertheless, it was during these abnormal times when their deaths get more attention and sympathy. However, those who are alive, would gradually die because of unemployment, rising inflation and inability to buy food. Paradigm shift, necessary for social change, is yet to happen in the Indian society. Indeed, the pandemic has deeply disrupted the lives of millions globally; however, it was the incapability of the leadership to deal with the pandemic efficiently which has exacerbated this crisis. Organised governmental chaos in India has led the humanitarian crisis of an epic proportion, has reproduced existing inequalities and exclusion of the marginalised population.

These are the times when the capability of the States to secure basic needs for their vulnerable population is being tested to the core. In such crisis, an effective leadership could navigate society away from impending disaster, like leadership in Portugal and New Zealand did. However, unlike India, in Portugal, a humane approach was adopted in dealing with the pandemic; people were given ample time to settle before national emergency was enforced (in India lockdown was brutally enforced only on four hours of notice), no one was brutalised by the police, and public transportation was totally free for all. However, I was sad to see that in Lisbon (where I stayed during the lockdown) how some Asian communities’ members, primarily Bengali Indians (Martin Muniz area), Pakistanis and Chinese businessmen exploited their Asian employees. Less payment, long hours of work, firing employees without any pay, coercion, disregarding work contract, are some of the human rights abuses. During the lockdown, Asian immigrant workers have suffered at the hands of their Asian employers. But, in normal times, they suffer the same fate on a daily basis. Normality, probably, is an illusion for them, but crisis is not. Pain, agony and frustration arising out of the crisis is very real for them.

Finally, it can be said that COVID-19 pandemic, maybe by nature is exceptional and temporary to the ruling elites and middle classes, however, for the millions of the poor Indian inter-state migrant workers, crisis is permanent. Pandemic has exposed the fault lines of fragile Indian society. It certainly has shown the Indian migrant workers that they are unwanted in their own country. How much such societies are able to sustain the forces of volatile disruption, only time will tell. COVID-19 pandemic may have redefined the ‘idea of normality’ to the privileged one, but for the excluded, marginalised and discriminated, comfortability of normality is just an illusion.

 

REFERENCES

Kristeva, J. (1982). Power of horror: An essay on abjection. Translated by Roudiez, L. Columbia University Press: New York. Retrieved from https://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/touchyfeelingsmaliciousobjects/Kristevapowersofhorrorabjection.pdf

de  Sousa Santos, B. (2020). Black Issues in Philosophy: Virus that is solid melts into air. Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA). Retrieved from https://estudogeral.sib.uc.pt/bitstream/10316/89211/1/Virus_all%20that%20is%20solid%20melts%20into%20air.pdf

 

The original article is published in: Explorations, ISS e-journal <http://app.insoso.org/ISS_journal/Issues/October_2020> , Vol. 4 (2), October 2020, published by Indian Sociological Society.

When It Comes to Sustaining Community Relationships, Small Businesses Are Not Small

June 1, 2021
By 28958

In this thought-provoking essay, 2002 Sylff fellow Patrick Kabanda advocates for small businesses like local dry cleaners. These mom-and-pop establishments play an outsized role in the community, says Kabanda, contributing to the well-being and cohesion of people and neighborhoods. But public relief programs have been less than successful at keeping these businesses afloat in the time of COVID-19.

*   *   *

Small businesses such as dry cleaners keep our communities healthy and sustain the harmony of our public life. But unfortunately, many of them have had to close down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Mikes-Photography from Pixabay

Among the many valuable lessons I learned as a music student, besides analyzing how the harmony of meaningful relationships works, was that the dry cleaning expenses for my concert clothing could be tax deductible; by the way, the tax code for artists, at least in the United States, can be complicated to a degree more than many of us would care to know.[1] And so, although it was customary in my native Uganda to iron clothes personally, knowing that my dry cleaning could be tax deductible has, in a way, always been an incentive to visit the dry cleaners—never mind that I’m not that religious about keeping the receipts.

When I moved to the Washington, DC area in 2014 (I never thought I’d stay this long), I kept my routine: one of the first places I searched was where I could do my dry cleaning. As I quickly discovered, from state to state, city to city, town to town, many such small businesses are usually family owned and operated by immigrants. As an immigrant myself, I often strike up conversations with attendants, and to my delight, they often reciprocate, as they are curious to know how I got into music. In terms of social capital, we get to bond in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

My most recent dry cleaner got to know me so well that whenever I showed up to pick up my clothes, she wouldn’t even need to check my phone number or my name. She would simply press a green buzzer on a machine that appears as if it’s supporting a thick forest of apparel, and my clothes would appear as if by magic from the thicket, well pressed, looking and smelling new. And if there were no other customers in line we confabulated for a while before I paid and left.

Then came COVID.

When the pandemic hit the globe, for months I never needed to go to my dry cleaner, nor did I give it much thought. But when things started to slowly reopen, I thought, “Well, some of those shirts with sweat from Zoom meetings could use a good clean.” So I went to my dry cleaner in early December 2020. But instead of being excited to see my friend, when our eyes met, we both were awash in sadness. For there was a sign in big red letters in front of her shop announcing that the business was closing.

As I tried to make sense of this, my friend said that the landlord couldn’t afford to keep reducing the rent, and with all the customers they’d lost during the pandemic, the dry cleaners had no choice but to close. What about those billions from the Paycheck Protection Program, which, as the pandemic raged, were supposed to keep millions of small businesses afloat?[2] It’s complicated.

There’s word that dozens of large restaurant chains, thanks to the restaurant industry’s lobbying efforts, somehow became eligible for relief that was intended for small businesses. There’s word that the money wasn’t shared evenly, because, as many had suspected from the very beginning, the biggest sums went to a tiny minority of the businesses in need; that is, “a mere 1 percent of the program’s 5.2 million borrowers” seeking over $1 million “received more than a quarter of the $523 billion disbursed.”[3] And there’s word that the haphazard nature in which the rules were poorly designed, coupled with the program’s hasty rollout, was an invitation to fraudsters; indeed, by the end of 2020, the US Justice Department had made “at least 41 criminal complaints in federal court against nearly 60 people, who collectively took $62 million from the Paycheck Protection Program,” as the American journalist Stacy Cowley has reported.[4]

After absorbing all that, I asked my dry cleaner if I could interview her for this story. She was reluctant to talk, because she feared her English wasn’t good enough, not to mention that she was concerned for her privacy. But eventually she agreed on the condition that I wouldn’t use her real name or the name and location of the shop. And so, let’s call her Anna, and her shop Da Capo Dry Cleaners.

Anna, a petite soft-spoken woman who is married and has a son in his late thirties, came to the United States from South Korea in the early 1980s. She got into the dry-cleaning business a few years thereafter. She has worked at Da Capo Dry Cleaners for more than 12 years. Although there’s an older lady who would occasionally come in on Saturdays for about four to five hours to help, Anna worked alone most of the time, all day long. “Nobody bothers me,” said Anna, who rarely, if ever, took a sick day off. It’s happy, responsible work, she added. If items were cleaned off-site, she would check and fix anything that looked amiss; for what kept her happy was to give a customer something nice. “Some people don’t work like me, because they don’t know how I do it,” she said. “I’m a very experienced, long-time cleaner, and if I see something bad, oh my gosh! I don’t know, I have to fix something bad, I have to fix.”

It’s little wonder that when asked what she is going to miss the most, she said it was the people, her customers. “How are you going to miss them,” I asked. “Ha ha ha,” her face beamed. “You know,” she added, as she recounted recent gifts from her customers, and I paraphrase: Some people have brought me cake, some people have given me money—she pulled out a crisp twenty-dollar bill to show me—some person, a candle and chocolate; one person brought a flower, another person yesterday gave me fifty dollars. But the gifts aside, she concluded that the interactions with her customers and their compliments for her meticulous service were irreplaceable.

In terms of public policy, what has been much debated is the need to save these mom-and-pops for the commerce and jobs they sustain. Rightly so. Nevertheless, although these businesses are small, what’s missing is the value of the important relationships they foster in our communities. In the West, where loneliness is taking such a toll to the point that in 2018 the UK government appointed a Minister for Loneliness,[5] there’s especially a need to consider how the closure of small businesses has affected communities since COVID swept the globe.

It’s encouraging that discussions are being held[6] on how the pandemic is impacting mental health.[7] But if we understand that—from health and community to jobs and relationships—these issues are interconnected, helping small businesses is bigger than helping them weather the worst in terms of commerce and job losses. Their contribution to our well-being could mean that they should also be supported on the basis of how they glue neighborhoods together, how they keep communities healthy, and how they sustain the harmony of our public life. That, in a way, could help open up resources and collaborations between and within governmental and nongovernmental agencies to deal with a wide range of challenges, including speedily crafting policies that are less susceptible to exploitation and fraud. It could also encourage continuous “systems thinking,”[8] rigorous interdisciplinary research, and ample cross-cultural analysis.

In New York, where I studied music at Juilliard, a New York Times editorial titled “They Offered Us Comfort and Normalcy. Now They Need Our Help.” concluded as follows: “In the darkest days of the pandemic this year, it was New York’s small businesses—its coffee shops and restaurants, groceries and bakeries—that remained open, serving up comfort and normalcy to millions who sorely needed them. Now they need our help in return.”[9]

Many small businesses across the world—in New York City alone, over 230,000 of them employ roughly 1.3 million people[10]—undoubtedly need our help now. How cities, states, and countries are going to successfully do this will certainly vary from place to place. That help, as in the case of New York, can run from “giving them direct federal aid and access to inexpensive capital” to cutting “onerous red tape” that complicates their work.[11] Also, subsidizing rent for struggling mom-and-pops until they’re back on their feet could be considered from country to country.

As Ray Oldenburg writes in his book The Great Good Place, “third places”—cafés, hair salons, dry cleaners, and the like—are “essential for the health both of our communities and ourselves.”[12] Once we take that argument to heart, we’re more likely to see small businesses not just as businesses, but also as part and parcel of the well-being of our society, especially during a global pandemic. Anna and I couldn’t agree more.

[1] Amy Sohn, “How the Tax Code Hurts Artists,” New York Times, April 1, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/opinion/how-the-tax-code-hurts-artists.html.

[2] Stacy Cowley and Ella Koeze, “1 Percent of P.P.P. Borrowers Got over One-Quarter of the Loan Money,” New York Times, December 2, 2020, updated February 1, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/02/business/paycheck-protection-program-coronavirus.html.

[3] Cowley and Koeze.

[4] Stacy Cowley, “Spotting $62 Million in Alleged P.P.P. Fraud Was the Easy Part,” New York Times, August 28, 2020, updated December 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/28/business/ppp-small-business-fraud-coronavirus.html.

[5] Ceylan Yeginsu, “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness,” New York Times, January 17, 2018,

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html; Grace Birnstengel, “What Has the U.K.’s Minister of Loneliness Done to Date?” Next Avenue, January 17, 2020, https://www.nextavenue.org/uk-minister-of-loneliness/.

[6] Kira M. Newman, “Seven Ways the Pandemic Is Affecting Our Mental Health,” Greater Good Magazine, August 11, 2020, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/seven_ways_the_pandemic_is_affecting_our_mental_health.

[7] Bilal Javed et al., “The Coronavirus (COVID‐19) Pandemic’s Impact on Mental Health,” International Journal of Health Planning and Management 35, no. 5 (2020): 993–96, https://doi.org/10.1002/hpm.3008.

[8] Zeynep Tufekci, “Using ‘Systems Thinking’ to Make Sense of the World, from Pandemics to Politics,” interview by Meghna Chakrabarti, On Point, WBUR 90.9 FM, February 25, 2021, https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2021/02/25/zeynep-systems-thinking-to-make-sense-of-the-world-from-pandemics-to-politics.

[9] The Editorial Board, “They Offered Us Comfort and Normalcy. Now They Need Our Help.,” New York Times, December 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/05/opinion/nyc-small-businesses-covid.html.

[10] The Editorial Board; The Partnership for New York City, “‘NYC Small Business Resource Network’ Launch,” September 30, 2020, https://pfnyc.org/news/nyc-small-business-resource-network-launch/.

[11] The Editorial Board.

[12] Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1999), fourth cover.

 

COVID-19: Highlighting the Need to Address Stress, Anxiety, and Trauma in the South African Education Landscape

May 31, 2021
By 27087

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the learning environment in South Africa includes challenges in adjusting to online teaching and the impact of trauma, 2012 Sylff fellow Liza Hamman says. To address stress and anxiety among learners and educators and help create a positive learning environment, Hamman developed an online mindful training course for South African educators using a Sylff Leadership Initiatives grant.

* * *

The countrywide lockdown imposed by the South African government in March 2020 changed the South African education landscape rapidly and radically. Educators and learners, who were accustomed to teaching and learning in a face-to-face classroom environment, had to adjust to online teaching methods suddenly and without warning. The learning curve was steep for both educators and learners, but those learners who at least had access to online resources were the lucky ones.  Unfortunately, many learners in South Africa do not have access to the resources needed to engage in online learning.

As an educator, I witnessed the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the learning environment firsthand. In my experience, a handful of students engaged with the online content and continued learning, while most trailed behind because they were unable to afford the devices, or the data, needed for this engagement. On the other hand, educators struggled to cope with this new approach to teaching. In South Africa, even before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators faced many challenges including classroom size, an increasing administrative workload, language barriers, and increasing incidents of violence in schools. Already overwhelmed educators now had to face even more challenges that they were not prepared for and received very little support in dealing with.


Furthermore, the learners they teach often face social challenges such as lack of adequate income, housing, and healthcare. South Africa is among the most unequal societies in the world, and many students come from communities where unemployment is endemic, gang and domestic violence is commonplace, and drug and alcohol misuse is widespread. These circumstances are frequently an everyday occurrence in unequal societies and result in “chronic trauma” for those living in these communities (Ebersöhn 2019, S2).

It can be safely assumed that as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, poverty and unemployment have increased in South Africa, as well as the associated trauma. Wartenweiler (2017) states that “acknowledging the impact of trauma on learning is of great importance if we want to create a more socially just education system and not disadvantage traumatised learners.”

 

The Impact of Trauma on the South African Education System

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, McGowan and Kagee (2013, 336) noted that South Africa is “a society characterized by high rates of violence and trauma.” Similarly, John (2016) found that trauma and fear are often a reality in the South African learning environment, which can impede the learning process. Traumatized learners display such symptoms as depression, guilt, shame, lack of confidence, disturbed sleep, inability to concentrate, chronic stress conditions, and panic attacks, among others.  For learners who are traumatized, learning is obstructed by anxiety, fear, and poor concentration (Kerka 2002). As a result of the aforementioned challenges that both educators and learners face, educators are struggling to deliver a level of education that will lay a strong foundation for much-needed economic growth and social change in South Africa.

Due to the consequences of trauma and other challenges faced by educators, stress, anxiety, and burnout are a prominent problem among educators in a South African context. Peltzer et al. (2009) found that stress levels are high among South African educators, with many educators reporting lack of job satisfaction associated with stress-related illnesses such as stomach ulcers, hypertension, mental distress, and alcohol misuse. Peltzer et al. (2009) report that lack of support for educators in South Africa is one of the leading reasons for high stress levels and educators leaving the profession. Furthermore, high stress levels have a negative impact on the quality of education delivered.

In support of the above-mentioned view, Jennings and Greenburg (2009) found that burnout and emotional exhaustion among educators have a negative impact on learner performance. Additionally, the classroom environment created by burned-out educators can have a negative effect on the social and emotional health of students. The student’s learning environment is mainly created by the educator, and it was found that socially and emotionally competent educators create a classroom environment that is more conductive to learning and fosters positive development.

 

Finding Ways to Address Trauma in the South African Education System

It is clear from the academic literature, as well as my own experience, the experience of my colleagues, and the learners that we teach, that there is a need to address trauma and emotional issues in educational settings. Authors such as Jennings and Greenburg (2009) recommend mindfulness as a way to deal with these challenges.

On a personal level, I have been interested for many years in mindfulness and methods that cultivate mindfulness. I was introduced to mindfulness and the practices that cultivate mindfulness for the first time in 2009. Since then, my interest in mindfulness, and how it can support education and learning, grew out of my own need to find improved ways to deal with my own stress, as well as my students’. My own experience, of introducing mindfulness in my own life and eventually to my learners, mirrored the views expressed in the academic literature—that mindfulness has the potential to address both educators’ and learners’ stress and anxiety.

Many authors assert that teaching people mindfulness will reduce stress, decrease burnout, promote self-esteem and a sense of well-being, enhance awareness of multiple perspectives, and induce the ability to reframe contexts and engage in the present moment. Furthermore, it will promote equanimity and wakefulness and enhance the ability to focus one’s attention (Kabat-Zinn 1994; Newman 2008; Shapiro, Brown, and Astin 2011). It is thus probable that mindfulness training will improve educators’ and learners’ emotional competence, resulting in a positive and innovative learning environment that promotes creative learning and development.

 

Introducing Mindfulness to South African Educators

Mindfulness training for educators is a novel concept in South Africa. The number of qualified mindfulness facilitators is limited, and very few are focused on mindfulness training in the education sector. At present, mindfulness training in South Africa is expensive and not readily available and therefore not accessible to all members of society. In pilot studies educators have reported positive results such as decreased stress and anxiety, increased focus, improved ability to handle conflict, and improved communication with students as a result of mindfulness training (Napoli 2004). Yet the lack of availability and cost of mindfulness training in South Africa will prevent educator participation in such courses.

As an educator and a certified mindfulness facilitator, I realized that there was a need to develop a course that is accessible to all South African educators. I believe that one of the most effective routes to provide mindfulness training to more people will be through the education system. Introducing educators to mindfulness and providing them with mindfulness techniques to pass on to their students will ensure that more members of South African society will have access to mindfulness training.

Responding to this need, and with a Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI) award from the Sylff Association, I developed an online mindfulness training course adapted to the needs of South African educators. The course is offered online not only to reduce the cost of facilitation, but also to make it accessible to educators across South Africa. In this way, it can reach educators and learners from underprivileged educational institutions as well as educators who live in rural areas. Additionally, although the concept of this course was developed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis further supported the appropriateness of an online solution.

The duration of the course will be eight weeks, during which educators will learn to manage and reduce their own stress and anxiety. They will also be introduced to simple techniques that they can pass on to their learners. The course is in its infant stages at the time of this writing, and the first pilot course is about to be launched. I will only be able to measure the impact of the training once the first participants have completed the course.

 

Conclusion

It is my hope that this online mindfulness training course for South African educators will provide them with much-needed support. I believe that if we take care of our teachers, we can improve the quality of education in South Africa, because educators will have the mental capacity to create a positive learning environment that is conducive to learning. The quality of education is vital to enabling students to become economically productive and sustain their own livelihood, supports individual well-being, and contributes to peaceful and democratic societies. Education can provide the foundation for economic growth, social change, and transformation that is much needed in South African society.

Lastly, online mindfulness training for South African educators has the potential to make a contribution toward addressing the social dilemma of chronic trauma, stress, and anxiety in South African society.

 

References

Ebersöhn, Liesel. 2019. “Training Educational Psychology Professionals for Work Engagement in a Context of Inequality and Trauma in South Africa.” Supplement, South African Journal of Education 39, no. S2: S1–S25.

Jennings, Patricia A., and Mark T. Greenburg. 2009. “The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher Social and Emotional Competence in Relation to Student and Classroom Outcomes.” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 1: 491–525.

John, Vaughn M. 2016. “Transformative Learning Challenges in a Context of Trauma and Fear: An Educator’s Story.” Australian Journal of Adult Learning 56, no. 2: 268–89.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. 1994. Catalyzing Movement Towards a More Contemplative/Sacred-Appreciating/Non-Dualistic Society. Pocantico, NY: The Nathan Cummings Foundation & Fetzer Institute.

Kerka, Sandra. 2002. “Trauma and Adult Learning.” ERIC Digest no. 239: 1–8.

McGowan, Taryn C., and Ashraf Kagee. 2013. “Exposure to Traumatic Events and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress among South African University Students.” South African Journal of Psychology 43, no. 3: 327–39..

Napoli, Maria. 2004. “Mindfulness Training for Teachers: A Pilot Program.” Complementary Health Practice Review 9, no. 1: 31–42.

Newman, Michael. 2008. “The ‘Self’ in Self-Development: A Rationalist Meditates.” Adult Education Quarterly 58, no. 4: 284–98.

Peltzer, Karl, Olive Shisana, Khangelani Zuma, Brian Van Wyk, and Nompumelelo Zungu-Dirwayi. 2009. “Job Stress, Job Satisfaction and Stress-Related Illnesses among South African Educators.” Stress and Health 25, no. 3: 247–57.

Shapiro, Shauna L., Kirk Warren Brown, and John A. Astin. 2011. “Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of Research Evidence.” Teachers College Record 113, no. 3: 493–528.

Wartenweiler, Thomas. 2017. “Trauma-Informed Adult Education: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.” The Online Journal of New Horizons in Education 7, no. 2: 96–106.

 

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Performance of Contractual Obligations, Particularly in Credit Agreements

May 27, 2021
By 28884

Masa Miskovic, a 2020 Sylff fellow, reviews how the COVID-19 pandemic—as well as government measures to combat it—has impacted contractual relations worldwide. In the latter part of the article, she focuses on the support measures implemented in Serbia, which, as in many other countries, include a moratorium on payments of credit obligations.

* * *

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Contractual Relations

The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, in view of the rapid spread of the coronavirus outside the territory of China.[1] The appearance of the new COVID-19 virus has had and continues to have a devastating impact on all aspects of human life around the globe. The governments of many countries have been forced to take various extreme measures to slow down the spread of the virus, including lockdowns on cities and countries, closure of borders, traffic and travel restrictions, import and export bans, and various interventions in the legal and economic frameworks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a far-reaching impact on contractual relations worldwide. In the field of contract law, the pandemic and the measures taken by the governments of different countries to combat it have led to nonperformance or improper performance of contractual obligations in a large number of contracts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a far-reaching impact on contractual relations worldwide.
Source of image: https://www.gard.no/web/updates/content/29452615/covid-19-and-force-majeure-clauses-under-english-law, access date: 11.03.2021

The largest law firms around the world have already published client alerts anticipating a large number of court and arbitration proceedings in the future due to nonperformance or improper performance of contractual obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The main question is whether the obligor is entitled to invoke the institute of force majeure, impossibility to perform, or changed circumstances (hardship) if it did not perform its contractual obligations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When assessing the circumstances to refer to a particular legal institute, it should be taken into account whether the nonperformance or improper performance of contractual obligations is due to measures and restrictions imposed by governments, nonperformance of the supplier, illness of the obligor or its employees, or decision of the obligor to temporarily close its business and not perform its contractual obligations in order to protect itself and its employees and prevent the spread of the coronavirus (despite the absence of government orders to that effect), or because the obligor argues that it was unable to fulfill its contractual obligations due to the “chaos in the economy” arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.[2]

Many studies and expert predictions about the outbreak of a pandemic have been conducted, but based on them, it could not be said that the COVID-19 pandemic was foreseeable in terms of its consequences. For example, the German government-related Robert-Koch Institute conducted a comprehensive risk analysis study, published by the German Parliament in January 2013, in which the occurrence of a hypothetical pandemic such as COVID-19 was qualified as “conditionally probable” (bedingt wahrscheinlich). This means that statistically speaking, such an event occurs once in a period of 100 to 1,000 years.[3]  

The only open question is from what moment the pandemic should be considered an event whose impact could have been foreseen. One opinion is that for all agreements concluded after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic (March 11, 2020), the pandemic and the government measures that were introduced cannot represent a force majeure, because they became foreseeable.[4] The second opinion is that while a formal declaration of a pandemic only took place on March 11, 2020, the pandemic and government measures in Europe were unforeseeable only for contracts concluded before February 2020, and given the speed of virus transmission and its consequences, they became foreseeable for contracts concluded from February 2020 onward.[5]

When it comes to credit agreement, the obligation of the borrower is monetary. Fulfillment of a monetary obligation can always be demanded from the contracting party, and if the borrower does not fulfill its obligation, fulfillment can be demanded through enforcement procedure. It is highly unlikely that the borrower will be able to prove that fulfilling the monetary obligation was impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic, given that payment of money can be performed by simply transferring money from one bank account to another, especially nowadays when the use of Internet (online) banking has become so widespread. Therefore, in order for the contracting party to invoke the institute of force majeure or impossibility to perform in a credit agreement, it must prove that there was no way to fulfill the contractual obligation. This is difficult to imagine in a credit agreement, given that these obligations are not “location dependent.”[6]

Increasing the costs of fulfillment of contractual obligations, even if it leads to insolvency, does not make fulfillment impossible; that is, it does not lead to impossibility to perform. The defense of temporary impossibility to perform (due to force majeure) could be invoked to postpone fulfillment of the contractual obligation. For example, if the number of employees and personnel access are limited but the physical access of employees is absolutely necessary to perform certain steps under a credit agreement, the defense of temporary impossibility may be used to suspend the contractual duty until the impossibility ceases and possibly for an additional reasonable time thereafter. This means that even in the event of a lockdown, the parties would not be able to invoke the defense of temporary impossibility to perform the contractual obligations if those obligations may continue to be performed when they are not location dependent. Therefore, in the case of a credit agreement, as a rule, a borrower cannot invoke force majeure as a reason for temporary or permanent impossibility to perform due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the borrower has a monetary obligation that is not location dependent. Perhaps it would be possible to argue that there was difficulty in performing contractual obligations—in other words, to invoke the changed circumstances (hardship) defense.

When referring to certain legal institutes to be excused from nonperformance of contractual obligations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, practitioners emphasize the importance of assessing the circumstances of each case, that is, the importance of deciding on a case-by-case basis.  On the other hand, it must be noted that the case-by-case method is not appropriate in the current situation, which requires an approach that combines individual and collective remedies to prevent strong parties in a contractual relationship from abusing their power during individual negotiations, whether because of their contractual power, their ability to spread their risk among more contracts, or their better knowledge of the effects of certain measures taken by the authorities.[8]

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Credit Agreements

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for borrowers are serious financial difficulties resulting in their inability to pay credit installments in accordance with the repayment plan. That is why some borrowers are forced enter into new credit agreements, often at higher interest rates, to overcome the poor financial situation. In other words, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the response measures that have been adopted have significant economic consequences. Many businesses and private individuals may face difficulties in the timely payment of their financial and other obligations. This in turn has an impact on credit institutions.

Among the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are serious financial difficulties resulting in borrowers inability to repay credit installments.
Source of image: https://www.thedailystar.net/law-our-rights/law-vision/news/covid-19-and-default-commercial-loans-looking-ahead-1899451, access date: 11.03.2021

Many countries across the globe have implemented a broad range of support measures to minimize the medium- and long-term economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and governmental actions taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In many instances, these measures include some form of moratorium on payments of credit obligations, suspending or postponing borrowers’ credit payment obligations from three to six months (for example, such measures have been taken in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and Spain).[9] Although the moratorium took different forms in different countries, its aim and economic essence are the same: supporting the short-term operational and liquidity challenges faced by the borrowers.

Recognizing the situation in which many borrowers found themselves due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Bank of Serbia adopted certain decisions on temporary measures for banks with the purpose of mitigating the consequences of the pandemic to preserve financial system stability, providing citizens and corporations with a suspension in the payment of their liabilities to banks and financial lessors. The bank pointed out that for all companies and entrepreneurs, the moratorium is “an opportunity to feel more comfortable in the financial sense, because by postponing the payment of obligations, they would get additional liquidity for their business.” At the same time, the moratorium provides citizens with “the opportunity to at least mitigate the consequences of their reduced income or increased expenses by not paying their annuities in short-term credit obligations, but also by not having to engage in activities related to paying monthly installments in such a difficult situation.”[10]

Many countries across the globe have implemented some form of moratorium on payments of credit obligations, suspending or postponing borrowers’ credit payment obligations.
Source of image: https://www.mintos.com/blog/moratorium-for-borrowers-international-overview-by-mintos/, access date: 11.03.2021

The first three-month moratorium in Serbia was introduced in March 2020 by the Decision on Temporary Measures for Preserving Financial System Stability and the Decision on Temporary Measures for Financial Lessors Aimed at Preserving Financial System Stability.[11] An additional (second) two-month moratorium was introduced in July 2020 by the Decision on Temporary Measures for Banks to Mitigate the Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic with the Aim of Preserving Financial System Stability and the Decision on Temporary Measures for Financial Lessors to Mitigate the Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic with the Aim of Preserving Financial System Stability.[12]

One of the major issues regarding moratorium is whether interest continues to run during the moratorium period. Many moratoria permit interest to continue to run during the moratorium period, but there are also examples of legal solutions where demanding payment of any additional contractual costs in the form of fees or interest is not allowed (such as in Belgium).[13] As a basic model for payment of credit installments, the National Bank of Serbia recommended that banks add three monthly installments to the end of the repayment period by extending the credit contract duration by three months and allocating the regular interest to the remaining loan repayment period. The remaining loan repayment period has been increased by three months due to the moratorium. Therefore, monthly installments after the moratorium period increase due to the allocation of calculated interest from the moratorium period to the remaining increased repayment period. In other words, during the moratorium period, the banks in Serbia did not charge the regular interest, but they did calculate it. However, a moratorium by definition means a standstill in the repayment of obligations, that is, a “suspension, postponement, or reduction of a party’s obligations.” Therefore, not just charging but also calculating interest during the moratorium period is not justified, and such a practice should not be allowed.

Demanding payment of any additional contractual costs in the form of fees or interest should not be allowed during the moratorium period.
Source of image: https://www.stopwatchmarketing.com/interest-rate-what-it-is-and-what-are-the-types-of-interest-rates/, access date: 11.03.2021

 In addition to the abovementioned decisions of the National Bank of Serbia, which introduced two moratoriums for all borrowers in Serbia, the bank also adopted a decision on additional measures facilitating loan repayment by borrowers who are faced with difficulties in performance of their contractual obligations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It adopted the Decision on Temporary Measures for Banks to Enable Adequate Credit Risk Management amid COVID-19 Pandemic and the Decision on Temporary Measures for Financial Lessors to Enable Adequate Credit Risk Management amid COVID-19 Pandemic.[14] In these decisions, the National Bank of Serbia prescribes the measures and activities to be applied by banks and lessors to ensure adequate credit risk management, which implies timely identification of debtors faced with potential difficulties and taking of appropriate steps. For this reason, it prescribes an obligation for banks and financial lessors to approve debt repayment facilities to debtors (natural persons, farmers, entrepreneurs, and companies) at their request, if they have or may have difficulties in the repayment of contractual obligations due to the conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Financial stability is necessary in ordinary circumstances and even more so in extraordinary ones. As stated by the Governor’s Office, the National Bank of Serbia will keep a close eye on the impact of changed circumstances on all relevant market participants and will act responsibly, taking steps within its remit with a view to maintaining financial system stability, which is a precondition for preserving and boosting overall growth of the economy.

[1] See https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19/news/news/2020/3/who-announces-covid-19-outbreak-a-pandemic

[2] Franz Swarz, John A. Trenor, and Helmut Ortner, ed., introduction to Contractual Performance and COVID-19: An In-Depth Comparative Law Analysis (Alphen aan den Rijn, Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 2020), http://www.kluwerlaw.com/covid-contracts/?doing_wp_cron=1588691772.5051820278167724609375#reports.

[3] German Bundestag, Bericht zur Risikoanalyse im Bevölkerungsschutz 2012 [Report on risk analysis in population protection 2012], January 3, 2013, annex 4: 55–56, https://dipbt.bundestag.de/doc/btd/17/120/1712051.pdf.

[4] Dominika Sulak Seyfried and Marta Bijak-Haiduk, “Poland: COVID-19 as Force Majeure,” Schoenherr (website), April 1, 2020, https://www.schoenherr.eu/content/poland-covid-19-as-force-majeure/.

[5] Klaus Peter Berger and Daniel Behn, “Force Majeure and Hardship in the Age of Corona: A Historical and Comparative Study,” McGill Journal of Dispute Resolution 6, no. 4 (2019/2020): 110, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3575869; Christian Twigg-Flesner, “A Comparative Perspective on Commercial Contracts and the Impact of COVID-19: Change of Circumstances, Force Majeure, or What?” in Law in the Time of COVID-19, ed. Katharina Pistor (New York: Columbia Law School, 2020), 7, https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/books/240.

[6] Robert Freedman, Alexandro M. Padrés, and Jesse Van Genugten, “The COVID-19 Crisis and Force Majeure in Credit Agreements,” Shearman & Sterling (website), March 24, 2020, https://www.shearman.com/perspectives/2020/03/the-covid-19-crisis-and-force-majeure-in-credit-agreements.

[7] Horst Ebhardt and Sarah Wared, “Does COVID-19 Constitute Force Majeure?” Wolf Theiss (website), March 2020: 1,  https://www.wolftheiss.com/fileadmin/content/6_news/clientAlerts/2020/Q1/20_03_23_CA_Does_COVID-19_constitute_Force_Majeure_Vienna.pdf; Anna Rizova, Oleg Temnikov, “Force Majeure and the Impact of COVID-19 Measures on Business in Bulgaria,” Wolf Theiss (website), March 2020: 2, https://www.wolftheiss.com/fileadmin/content/6_news/clientAlerts/2020/Q1/20_03_25_CA_Bulgaria_Force_Majeure_Sofia.pdf;Peter Ocko, “Coronavirus: Effects on Contractual Relations and Short-Term Need for Action,” Lexology (website), March 6, 2020, https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=e56ae158-ee75-4260-804b-0fc9a9fde8e7; Peter Gorše, “Slovenia: COVID-19 and Breach of Contract: Debtors Beware of Foreseeability Element,” April 21, 2020, https://www.schoenherr.eu/content/slovenia-covid-19-and-breach-of-contract-debtors-beware-of-foreseeability-element/; Ilya Bolotnov and Yuri Vorobyev, “Коронавирус vs договор” [Coronavirus vs contract], March 23, 2020, https://www.pgplaw.ru/analytics-and-brochures/alerts/coronavirus-vs-the-contract/.

[8] Richard Alderman et al. (COVID-19- Consumer Law Research Group), “Consumer Law and Policy Relating to Change of Circumstances Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Consumer Policy 43, no. 3 (September 2020): 441, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10603-020-09463-z.

[9] Alderman et al., 441–42.

[10] National Bank of Serbia, “Moratorium on Payments of Credit Obligations” (in Serbian), 2020, 2, https://nbs.rs/export/sites/NBS_site/documents/mediji/vesti/Primeri-moratorijum-1.pdf.

[11] National Bank of Serbia, “Moratorium on Debt Payments,” March 18, 2020, https://www.nbs.rs/en/scripts/showcontent/index.html?id=15323&konverzija=no.

[12] National Bank of Serbia, “NBS Enables Additional Suspension in Repayment of Borrowers’ Liabilities—A New Moratorium,” July 28, 2020, https://www.nbs.rs/en/scripts/showcontent/index.html?id=15747&konverzija=no.

[13] Alderman et al., 442.

[14] National Bank of Serbia, “NBS Passes New Measures to Facilitate Repayment to Debtors Hit by the COVID-19 Pandemic,” December 15, 2020, https://www.nbs.rs/en/scripts/showcontent/index.html?id=16441.

Community and Risk Communication: Experience of COVID-19 Communication in India

May 21, 2021
By 19832

Sreerupa Sengupta discusses the positive and negative aspects of the risk communication strategies taken by India during COVID-19. On an international level, lessons learned from past pandemics have led to improvements in risk communication, and the Internet and social media have been used significantly to reach the public. But among other problems, use of the term “social distancing” reinforced the caste-based inequality prevalent in Indian society, Sengupta notes.

* * *

Pandemic, Risks, and Realities

History has shown that pandemics are not a novel phenomenon. Over the decades, the world has witnessed an increase in the frequency of pandemics: HIV and AIDS in 1981, SARS in 2002, swine flu in 2009, and Ebola in 2013.[1] It may sound ironic, but globalization, urbanization, environmental change, and greater mobility of people and animals have increased the potential for “global transmission of epidemics” (Hastings and  Krewski 2016). While the higher frequency of pandemics has contributed to an increase in human mortality and social apprehension; pandemics have also led to transformational changes in the environment, society, and health systems research (Hall, Scott, et al. 2020). The outbreak of pandemics, such as HIV, SARS, and Ebola, has acted as a catalyst in bringing about advancements in health infrastructure, testing, screening, medical devices, medicine, and healthcare delivery. These pandemics have provided the necessary momentum and insights for reshaping risk communication during public health emergencies (WHO 2018). In short, pandemics have been our teachers. There were many lessons for the affected countries as well as for the rest of the world to leverage and strategize how to build a resilient society that can respond to public health emergencies effectively (Chatterjee, Bajwa, et al. 2020).

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19[2] as a pandemic. The announcement of the pandemic created chaos, uncertainty, ambiguity, and anxiety across the globe. Despite experience with past pandemics and preparedness to deal with pandemics accumulated over the decades, many countries struggled to prevent and manage COVID-19 (Wang, Cleary, et al. 2020). The world was found to be in learning and reactive mode, with a greater focus on lockdown and isolation. This kind of reaction from countries was indeed surprising, especially given that it was the twenty-first century. Even risk communication during the COVID-19 pandemic created confusion and chaos in many countries.

Pandemic as Teacher: Designing Risk Communication during COVID-19

In the absence of a vaccine at the initial stage of the pandemic, countries relied heavily on nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs)[3] such as risk awareness to prevent and slow the transmission of the virus in the community. Risk communication emerged as one of the potent tools to make people aware of the risks, motivate them to change their behavior, and thereby control the rapid spread of the virus into the community.[4]

COVID-19 risk communication was significantly influenced by the experiences of risk communication during HIV and AIDS. HIV and COVID-19 have a few similarities. Both started with no vaccine or cure. Both pandemics created social and moral panic.  Unlike COVID-19, the onslaught of HIV was slow and took nearly four decades to cause disruptions, but like COVID-19, HIV had an unprecedented impact on public health, human development, and individual lives.

HIV heralded major shifts in the discourse of health communication. HIV highlighted that individual behavior and decision-making capacity are determined by their social context and that this in turn influences their health seeking behavior (Sengupta 2013). Hence, HIV re-emphasized that the psychosocial determinants are crucial in designing realistic health messages.

Another major contribution of HIV communication was its insistence on a bottom-up approach while designing health messages to bring about social change. The significance of diverse stakeholder engagement in health communication was the point HIV drove home for policymakers, health officials, and development professionals.

Community workers, the networks of people living with HIV and AIDS activists also emphasized the necessity of risk communication to address human rights abuses that are both cause and consequence of the spread of the virus.

Taking cues from AIDS communication, the public service announcements developed by the WHO addressed the physical and emotional needs of people. The risk communication went beyond the biomedical model of health[5] and addressed an array of topics, such as empathy for people living with the virus, home care during COVID-19, stress reduction, taking care of mental health during a crisis, and provision of home care (WHO 2020). There were messages to destigmatize the disease and reduce discrimination faced by people living with the virus. The WHO also developed communication materials on how exactly to talk about the pandemic to reduce stigma and on addressing human rights as key to the response to COVID-19 (WHO 2020). The WHO acknowledged that integrating a human rights framework is “not only a moral imperative” but essential for making health communication inclusive. There were messages on the right to health of pregnant women and differently abled people and the right to life and security of healthcare workers (WHO, 2020).[6]

Social media was used extensively to send out messages on risks to a vast segment of the population. The WHO created a dedicated website on COVID-19, set up a WhatsApp group, and launched a new Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN) as an immediate form of health intervention. Various countries launched national campaigns on pandemic-related issues on the government websites and social platforms to combat fake news and to encourage awareness, understanding, and compliance with government-imposed restrictions (Chatterjee, Bajwa, et al. 2020).

The risk communication developed during COVID-19 deftly incorporated the lessons learned from HIV and other health crises and brought about positive changes in the global communication on risk. The pace at which materials on risk communication developed during this pandemic in all countries and the range of topics covered is undeniably commendable.

But it should be borne in mind that while the pandemic is global, the response to it is local. As an academic and a development professional working in the domain of health communication for over a decade,[7] I became interested in exploring the changes in risk communication in India during the current public health emergency. I analyzed the risk communication materials published on social media and newspapers between March and October 2020, when cases of the novel coronavirus were sharply increasing in India. 

COVID-19 Communication: Experiences from India

A toll-free helpline for psychosocial support.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW)[8] of India developed a plethora of information, education, and communication (IEC) materials on risk awareness related to COVID-19 and strategies to stay safe and prevent the spread of the virus. Along with print and electronic media, social media was used extensively to connect with the people; a dedicated section on COVID-19 was also developed on the website of the MoHFW. The Health Ministry networked with diverse stakeholders including departments of telecommunication, postal services, and 

Educating people about rules of etiquette to follow during the pandemic.

the National Council for Science and Technology Communication to sensitize people about COVID-19. Given the paucity of time and the vast population, the government of India also joined hands with private players to reach out to remote corners of the country. For instance, the MoHFW collaborated with mobile companies to expedite the process of risk communication. Private mobile companies created ringtones to raise awareness about the virus and instructed people to report to the nearest healthcare center in case of symptoms of COVID-19. The ringtones included messages in the local languages and were aimed at debunking myths, reducing fear among the people regarding the virus, and educating them about “new normal” etiquette.

A message on home quarantine.

Given the rapid spread of the virus, multiple channels of communication, such as social and print media and mass media campaigns, were used to reach out to the people. Using multiple channels increased the chances that the intended audience will receive enough messages on risk awarene ss to absorb and act on them. It is also heartening to observe that risk awareness was not confined within the biomedical framework. Rather, the IEC materials developed by the government discussed a range of issues, such as the mental health of people living with COVID-19, empathy, home quarantine, care and support, stigma, and discrimination. The messages included, “Do not stigmatize patients and family members,” “Do not stigmatize COVID-19 survivors,” and “Standing together against COVID-19 stigma.” A psychosocial toll-free helpline and a helpline email account were created for better community engagement.

A message about destigmatizing people living with Corona.

For the first time, there was a series of communication materials that addressed the contribution of frontline workers, their need for protection, and the responsibility of society to be respectful toward them. Undoubtedly, there were major shifts in the content, channel, and strategy for risk communication during COVID-19. But notwithstanding the positive endeavor of the MoHFW, there were glaring gaps, as I outline below.

 a. Uncritical acceptance of the global framework of risk communication

The MoHFW followed the diktats of the WHO in developing local risk communication materials. Hence, in most such materials developed by the national government, the term “social distancing” has been frequently used as a key risk mitigation strategy. While the WHO did initially use the term “social distancing,” it quickly switched to “physical distancing.” Unfortunately, the MoHFW upheld the globally coined language of “social distancing.” History has shown that the concept is inherently divisive. The Indian caste system thrives on the idea of social distancing. The upper caste in India maintains its purity by socially distancing themselves from the impure lower caste. Frequent usage of the concept of social distancing in risk communication reinforced and deepened the inequality prevalent in Indian society.

The concept of social distancing also assumes that people have the requisite resources and an enabling environment to adopt such preventive strategies. The critical question is: can a daily wage earner, migrant laborer, homeless person, or resident of an urban slum who lives in abject poverty realistically practice social distancing?

 b. Absence of community concerns in COVID-19 communication

None of the IEC materials addressed the vulnerability of such groups as migrant laborers, homeless people, and sex workers, as if their reality does not matter. A content analysis of the posters uploaded on various social media and published in newspapers highlights the lack of representation of marginalized groups in the country. The review makes it apparent that a top-down approach had been taken in designing the risk communication materials, with little involvement of the community.

Governed by the diktats of the donors, the national government was keener to produce quantifiable results. The focus was more on measuring return on investment than on truly inducing social change. Success of risk communication was thus measured by counting the numbers of IEC materials produced, new media used, and NGOs supported in the creation of communication materials. If we observe the pattern of risk communication in India, it becomes apparent that the exercise had been an attempt to respond to the bureaucratic targets of preparing infographics, toolkits, manuals and reports rather than to uplift the lives of people and make health communication contextual, inclusive, and sustainable.

 c. Failure to contextualize risk communication

HIV clearly showed that risk communication is effective only when the real concerns of the community are addressed and social norms and cultures are honored. For instance, in India, every year people suffer from measles despite vaccines. It is a common practice to quarantine the individual within the family for three weeks. Such practices neither arouse stigma nor create any panic in the community. COVID-19 communication should have made references to such health instances to allay the fear of the people, reduce their anxiety and confusion, and strike the right chord with the larger population.

Conclusion

The public health emergency in the country did usher in a number of positive changes in the landscape of risk communication. COVID-19 created the space for greater use of technology in risk communication. For a country like India, with its geographical vastness, this was indeed a boon. But the pandemic once again made it clear that to make health communication sustainable and for better risk governance, there is a need to include local words and visuals from the community in health-related materials. Health messages should use local art forms to connect with the community. Local institutions should be engaged in documenting and disseminating local and traditional practices of good health already in place, which can then be shared and practiced by diverse communities to avert pandemics. International guidelines provide a direction to risk communication, but risk communication should essentially be context specific and people centered. Unless that happens, risk communication will remain a tool for public health management and not an initiative for the people to claim their right to health.

Adapted by the author from an article originally posted on changeframing.space: https://www.changeframing.space/answering-the-burning-questions/confusion-angst-and-deceptive-communication.

[1] The world witnessed the outbreak of HIV and AIDS in 1981 in the United States. Over the decades, HIV spread to several countries. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS, 2002–2003) originated in China and spread to nearly 29 countries, swine flu (2009–2010) appeared in Mexico and spread to at least 30 countries, and Ebola (2013–2014) appeared in Africa and spread to at least 10 countries. It was the geographical spread of these viruses that earned them the title of pandemic. The number of people affected by the latter three viruses did not reach the proportion of either HIV or the current COVID-19. See https://www.changeframing.space/answering-the-burning-questions/confusion-angst-and-deceptive-communication.

[2] COVID-19 is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus. This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. COVID-19 is now a pandemic affecting many countries globally. See https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019.

[3] According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nonpharmaceutical interventions are actions that people and communities can take to help slow the spread of illnesses like pandemic influenza in the absence of a vaccine or medicine. NPIs are also known as community mitigation strategies. See https://www.cdc.gov/nonpharmaceutical-interventions/index.html.

[4] Risk communication forms an essential component in the package of effective pandemic response. In 2005, the International Health Regulations underscored its importance as a health intervention. Since then, risk communication has become central to the WHO’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework (WHO 2018).

[5] The biomedical approach focuses on disease transmission and prevention from a clinical perspective. Risk communication following a biomedical model of health will discuss only transmission of the virus and methods of prevention; the focus is only on biological factors. Other factors, such as psychological, environmental, and social, are not taken into consideration.

[6] See https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public.

[7] My affair with health communication happened in 2006 through a project on HIV and violence against women (VAW). Thereafter, the Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff) fellowship in 2008 gave me an opportunity to delve into the politics and ideology that influence health messages and engage with the community to make health communication more inclusive. My doctoral dissertation adopted a gender- and rights-based approach to analyze representation of gender inequality, HIV, and human rights and the intersections between them in HIV-related communication in India.

[8] The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (https://main.mohfw.gov.in/about-us/about-the-ministry) is responsible for health policy and the planning and implementation of health-related programs in India. The ministry also looks into matters pertaining to family planning in India.

References

Chatterjee, R, S. Bajwa, D. Dwivedi, et al. 2020. “COVID-19 Risk Assessment Tool: Dual Application of Risk Communication and Risk Governance.” Progress in Disaster Science 7 (October 2020), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pdisas.2020.100109.

Hall, C., D. Scott, and S. Gössling. 2020. “Pandemics, Transformations and Tourism: Be Careful What You Wish For.” Tourism Geographies 22, no. 3 (2020),577-598 https://doi.org/10.1080/14616688.2020.1759131.

International Labour Organization. 2020. An Employer’s Guide on Working from Home in Response to the Outbreak of COVID-19. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_dialogue/---act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_745024.pdf.

Saunders-Hastings, Patrick R., and Daniel Krewski. 2016. “Reviewing the History of Pandemic Influenza: Understanding Patterns of Emergence and Transmission.” Pathogens 5, no. 4 (2016), 66 https://doi.org/10.3390/pathogens5040066

Sengupta, S. 2013. HIV and AIDS Media Campaigns in India: Exploring Issues of Gender and Rights, Doctoral Dissertation, Jadavpur University, 2013. http://hdl.handle.net/10603/133048

Wang, H., P. Cleary, J. Little, et al. 2020. “Communicating in a Public Health Crisis”. The Lancet Digital Health 2, no. 10 (2020): e503. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2589-7500(20)30197-7.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2020. Gender and COVID-19: Advocacy Brief. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/332080/WHO-2019-nCoV-Advocacy_brief-Gender-2020.1-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

WHO. 2020. Addressing Human Rights as Key to the COVID-19 Response. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/addressing-human-rights-as-key-to-the-covid-19-response.

WHO. 2018. Communicating Risk in Public Health Emergencies: A WHO Guideline for Emergency Risk Communication (ERC) Policy and Practice. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/259807/9789241550208-eng.pdf?sequence=2.

WHO. Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public. Last updated April 9, 2021. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public.

COVID-19 Pandemic: Requiem for Human Rights?

April 9, 2021
By 28870

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the international community’s commitment to human rights protection. Ana Zdravkovic, a PhD candidate at the University of Belgrade, looks at the “derogation clauses” included in most international human rights treaties, which allow for the temporary suspension of certain rights in emergency situations, and notices a disturbing trend in how states are approaching them.

*  *  *


Derogations: A “Necessary Evil”

It hardly comes as a surprise that the vast majority of international human rights treaties provide contracting states with the possibility to temporarily derogate from their treaty commitments during states of emergency.[i] After the atrocities of World War II, at the time of drafting core instruments of human rights law, no one really questioned the need for some sort of escape mechanism to be used in emergency cases, such as war, natural disasters, riots, public health crises, or other extraordinary circumstances. Naturally, the option of human rights suspension is accompanied by carefully created substantial and procedural restrictions.

The rationale behind these so-called derogation clauses is straightforward: states should be allowed some space to confront and resolve the crisis and even derogate from their international obligations, with the aim of urgently restoring the previous state of normalcy, where full compliance with human rights treaties would be guaranteed. It was accepted that in the absence of this “necessary evil,” states would likely cease to meet their obligations during emergencies, but with a greater risk of violations due to lack of supervision. “Derogation clauses” enable the international community not only to identify and monitor alleged human rights abuses during exceptional circumstances but also to preserve and protect the core (non-derogable) rights of individuals.


ICCPR’s Derogating Mechanism in a Nutshell

The UN Human Rights Council meets in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, Palace of Nations, Geneva (Switzerland).

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a one-of-a-kind, multilateral treaty aimed at protecting civil and political human rights and freedoms. It entered into force on March 23, 1976, and 173 states have ratified the treaty and became its parties so far. The document appears to be the strongest confirmation of the international community’s dedication to human rights protection, at least in terms of first-generation human rights. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may reveal otherwise.

As can be expected, the ICCPR has its own derogation mechanism, namely Article 4, which reads as follows:

  1. In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law and do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin.
  2. No derogation from articles 6, 7, 8 (paragraphs 1 and 2), 11, 15, 16 and 18 may be made under this provision.
  3. Any State Party to the present Covenant availing itself of the right of derogation shall immediately inform the other States Parties to the present Covenant, through its intermediary of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, of the provisions from which it has derogated and of the reasons by which it was actuated. A further communication shall be made, through the same intermediary, on the date on which it terminates such derogation.

The first paragraph of Article 4 prescribes the circumstances in which states can lawfully and validly derogate from their obligations. To begin with, there must be a “public emergency which threatens the life of the nation,” such as war, rebellion, terrorist attacks, a natural disaster, or a public health emergency. Although the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the ICCPR[ii] provide with detailed guidance for the interpretation of the ICCPR in this regard, there is no denying that a health crisis such as a pandemic can amount to a public emergency, since Article 4 has already been activated in public health crises in the past.[iii] When it comes to the COVID-19 situation, it represents an actual emergency seriously affecting and threatening the entire humankind, especially from the points of view of death tolls, the almost complete collapse of healthcare systems, its impact on the global economy, and the riots and protests it is constantly triggering. As for the requirement that the emergency be officially proclaimed, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Even prior to that date, many states had enacted emergency measures with the aim of curbing the spread of the deadly virus.[iv] Additional substantial conditions laid down by Article 4 require striking a fair balance between derogating measures and the actual needs of the particular situation, provided that the means used are not discriminatory or inconsistent with other obligations under international law.[v]

The second paragraph of Article 4 protects certain rights from derogation, so that they will continue to apply regardless of the state of emergency and must be protected under any circumstances. In particular, according to the ICCPR, the following are non-derogable rights: the right to life; freedom from torture and from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from slavery or servitude; the right not to be imprisoned for contractual debt; freedom from retroactive criminal punishment; the right to recognition as a person before the law; and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.[vi]

Finally, the last paragraph prescribes the procedural conditions, which oblige state parties to immediately issue a notification to the UN Secretary-General with relevant provisions, reasons, and justifications and to provide additional communication on the date of termination of such derogating measures. The requirements are intended to ensure that all state parties are duly informed about the state of emergency and derogations taking place in one’s territory in order to enable active monitoring of ICCPR compliance, as well as potential abuse of emergency powers and possible breaches of human rights.[vii]


ICCPR: A Casualty of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

An empty Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room.

Although all of the abovementioned substantial and procedural requirements should always be examined on a case-by-case basis, the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic may constitute a public emergency requiring certain derogations in almost every state across the globe. This is even more so, taking into account all of the measures implemented around the world for the purpose of curbing virus transmission (such as border closures, travel restrictions, curfews, and total prohibition of movement). Nevertheless, since the outbreak of the pandemic, only 22 states have officially notified the UN Secretary-General of their intention to impose measures derogating from their obligations under the ICCPR, which is rather peculiar.[viii] One may hastily assume that this necessarily indicates the ignorance of the state parties about the provisions of the treaty, and hence that they failed to act in accordance with it.

However, there is another solution that may have been used by those who did not resort to derogations. Imposed measures affect rights that are not absolute in nature, primarily the right to liberty of movement (Article 12), freedom to manifest religion or beliefs (Article 18), right to freedom of expression (Article 19), right of peaceful assembly (Article 21), and right to freedom of association (Article 22). The provision allowing their limitations during ordinary times (permissible restrictions) seems to be the common ground to all of them. Put differently, the ICCPR recognizes the potential need of a state to limit certain rights in order to protect some of the enumerated collective interests, including public health. There are prescribed conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to apply permissible restrictions: the restrictions must be provided by law, proportionate and necessary for the protection of health, and nondiscriminatory. Therefore, it is perfectly comprehensible that some governments decided not to declare a state of emergency and not to opt for derogations, but rather to stay inside the regular framework of human rights treaties and to limit certain rights and freedoms to the extent required by the health crisis.

Unfortunately, there are arguments showing that this may not be the case. Firstly, in April 2020 the UN Human Rights Committee issued a statement expressing concern because “several states parties have resorted to emergency measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in a manner seriously affecting the implementation of their obligations under the Covenant, without formally submitting any notification of derogation from the Covenant.”[ix] Furthermore, as elaborated earlier, other human rights treaties also include similar derogation mechanisms. The European Convention on Human Rights procedurally requires that contracting states notify the Secretary General of the Council of Europe of their intention to derogate from their obligations. So far 11 states have issued such notifications, but strangely enough, this number includes ICCPR parties that failed to send any notification to the UN Secretary-General.[x] Similarly, there are at least 5 states that informed the Secretary General of the Organization of American States about the suspension of certain rights guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights but failed to notify the UN Secretary-General.[xi] It goes without saying that a state cannot derogate from its obligations under one of these treaties and not do so under another, without inevitably breaching provisions of the one it ignored.

Hence, it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic brought, apart from all other miseries, chaos into the long-crafted human rights system. The ICCPR, once a strong pillar of the International Bill of Human Rights and a great successor to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, suddenly became completely disregarded and passed over by its state parties. Governments either seemed reckless when it came to their human rights obligations, pretending that there was no need for triggering relevant emergency mechanisms, or starkly revealed that they were more eager to cherish the regional human rights systems they belonged to. As Professor Dominic McGoldrick famously stated back in 2004, “The response of a state to a public emergency is an acid test of its commitment to the effective implementation of human rights.”[xii]

In an attempt to not finish in this worrisome tone, I will note that the pandemic is still not over, which gives us time to revive ourselves and get back on the path we chose more than half a century ago with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a path of protecting, respecting, and promoting human rights worldwide.

 

[i] See for example Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, UN Treaty Series, vol. 999, 171; Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as amended by Protocols Nos. 11 and 14, November 4, 1950, ETS 5; and Article 27 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Organization of American States. The African Charter, however, contains no derogation clause; see African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Organisation of African Unity.

[ii] The Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, September 28, 1984, UN Doc. E/CN.4/1985/4.

[iii] For example, Georgia activated Article 4 in 2006 due to the H5N1 virus, while in 2009 Guatemala opted for derogation in response to the influenza A (H1N1) epidemic. See https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-4&chapter=4&clang=_en (accessed February 9, 2021).

[iv] For more information, see https://www.icnl.org/covid19tracker/ (accessed February 9, 2021).

[v] For a detailed analysis, see for example Sarah Joseph and Melissa Castan, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Cases, Materials, and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 910–23.

[vi] In addition, the prohibition of the death penalty is non-derogable according to the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/2ndopccpr.aspx (accessed February 9, 2021).

[vii] Although the UN Human Rights Committee did not clarify whether the failure to notify the UN Secretary-General would invalidate the derogation, the author is of the opinion that derogations that contravene Article 4 in any manner, including procedural, cannot be considered lawful.

[viii] These states are Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Namibia, Paraguay, Peru, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, San Marino, Senegal, and Thailand; see https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-4&chapter=4&clang=_en (accessed February 10, 2021).

[ix] UN Human Rights Committee, “Statement on derogations from the Covenant in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic,”, April 30, 2020, CCPR/C/128/2, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CCPR/COVIDstatementEN.pdf (accessed February 10, 2021).

[x] By comparing publicly available lists of declarations, it can be concluded that Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia did derogate from the ECHR but not from the ICCPR; see https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/treaty/005/declarations and https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-4&chapter=4&clang=_en (February 10, 2021).

[xi] The 5 states are Bolivia, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, and Suriname; see https://www.rightofassembly.info/assets/downloads/Derogations_from_the_Right_of_Peaceful_Assembly_(at_11_November_2020)_.pdf (accessed February 10, 2021).

[xii] Dominic McGoldrick, “The interface between public emergency powers and international law,” International Journal of Constitutional Law 2, no. 2 (April 2004), 388.

Is Egypt’s Economy Surviving Corona’s Bumpy Ride?

April 6, 2021
By 28847

Christine Guirguis, a 2020 Sylff fellow from the American University in Cairo, addresses the outlook for Egypt’s economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Egypt was one of only three countries in the region to maintain positive growth in 2020, an impressive record given the difficulties it has experienced over the past decade, as Guirguis details.

* * *

View of Cairo from the top of Cairo Tower, August 25, 2014.

Egypt’s economic condition in 2012–13 was dubbed the worst crisis since the 1930s. The severity of the economic troubles reached its peak in the first half of 2014 with a fall in the GDP growth rate to 1.2%—the lowest in about 50 years—as well as a rise of the inflation rate to 9%, a surge in the unemployment rate to 14%, a fall of eight places in tourism ranking, and a shortage in essential food products. As a result, Egypt’s economic status as of 2014, which was downgraded from emerging market to frontier market in Russell’s Annual Index, left the country scrambling to rescue its 86-million population at the time.

Before reluctantly resorting to the International Monetary Fund, Egypt—whose national security is a safety valve to the region—had received generous aid from the Arabian Gulf and Saudi Arabia totaling as much as $30 billion. While such aid breathed life into Egypt’s economy, the bill was far from paid.

In 2015, three-quarters of Egypt’s budget vanished into subsidies, government wages, interest payments, and capital loan repayments; only 5% of the budget was left for other purposes. In the same year, the crash of a Russian airplane due to an act of terrorism marked the Egyptian tourism’s clinical death before it was gradually resuscitated in 2019 by stricter security measures in airports. This was when Egypt decided, on November 3, 2016, to brace up for a $12 billion IMF loan by devaluing its currency by 48% and fulfilling the IMF’s requirements by way of cutting subsidies, increasing VAT, and floating the currency.

Luxor temple, Luxor, January 2015.

In a recent television interview, Mr. Tarek Amer, governor of the Central Bank of Egypt, talked about the Herculean responsibility he had in his hands in 2015. Egypt’s foreign cash reserves were only $800 million, an amount Egypt normally spends in a week. Consequently, its economy would have faced the risk of a total shutdown unless an urgent “surgery” of painful economic reform was done. The political and social sensitivity of the November 2016 decision, at a time when Egypt was craving for stability, rendered the proposal impossible from the point of view of almost all the cabinet members. No one was able to digest the unimaginable scenarios that could have taken place if the economic reform process had failed to meet its purposes, especially because its probability of success was estimated to be between only 10% and 30% at the time. With no alternatives on the horizon, President Sisi gave the green light for the execution of the economic reform proposal, a decision that signified a new, independent approach that enabled Egypt to skip the limitations that had long impeded its economic restructuring.

In a country where a quarter of the people live below the poverty line, the government wanted to ensure that its measures would not cause a humanitarian crisis or a social backlash. The government kept intact the cash transmission programs and subsidized food systems launched earlier.

Given the painful austerity measures, some envisioned a doomsday scenario taking place in Egypt. Yehia Hamed, a former investment minister in Mohamed Morsi’s 2012–13 government, wrote an article in the Foreign Policy in 2019 where he conjectured that Egypt was heading toward bankruptcy and warned Europe against a mass flocking across the Mediterranean of Egyptians fleeing an inevitable bleak fate.

In response Ahmed Shams El Din, an Egyptian capital markets professional and adjunct professor at the American University in Cairo, published an article on the same news site where he expressed his wonder at the former minister’s criticism of securing an IMF loan even though the government in which he served had approached the IMF in 2012 for a loan. He noted that Egypt’s economy is growing rather than collapsing, with the account and budget deficits cut in half and a 5.5% growth in 2019 compared to 2.2% in 2013.  

The current pandemic is already suffocating some of the biggest economies, supporting the IMF’s description of it as “the worst economic crisis since the 1930s depression.” For Egypt, the challenge is tougher due to losses in the main revenue sources, such as tourism, the Suez Canal, and remittances, which together constitute 15% of Egypt’s GDP. Therefore, in its June report the IMF initially expected a decline in Egypt’s GDP growth rate from 5.6% in 2019 to as low as 2% in 2020—a percentage it later changed to 3.5% in its October report. Given the global economic challenges, this relatively low growth rate makes Egypt one of three countries in the Middle East and Central Asia to maintain a positive figure in 2020.

Antique Bazaars, Aswan, January 2015.

During the apex of the global pandemic uncertainty in 2020, Egypt managed to pay $35 billion of its liabilities without suffering a severe decline in its foreign currency stockpile or any shortage of essential goods. This explained Egypt’s ability to maintain its credit ratings by Standard & Poor’s at “BB” in April 2020, by Fitch at “B+” with a Stable Outlook in July, and by Moody’s at “B2” in August. Based on these ratings, J.P. Morgan praised Egypt’s economic performance, stating that, thus far, its economy had successfully withstood the test of the pandemic and kept the trust of the international community. Hence, Egypt’s economy has been given well-grounded positive appraisals.To contain corona’s economic repercussions, the Egyptian government allocated 100 billion Egyptian pounds (EGP) as a stimulus package, including half to support the severely affected tourism sector, EGP 8 billion for the health sector, a 14% increase in pensions, energy cost relief for factories, fewer taxes on businesses, more cash transmissions, and financial support for irregular workers until the end of 2020.

Egypt’s top priorities in the economic agenda include augmenting domestic savings, as well as adopting a more liberal approach toward the market, revisiting tax penalties and exemptions, and laying the basis for a fairer accountability system.

Teaching Literature in Times of Pandemic

March 3, 2021
By 28851

A scholar of Italian literature, 2020 Sylff fellow Nataša Gavrilović compares today’s situation with that of Renaissance-era Italy to contemplate the role of literature—and, more broadly, of the arts and humanities—as well as of teaching it, particularly at times of crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic.

* * *

During the period of the flourishing of culture and the arts on the Apennine Peninsula—at the same time that the voice of humanism was becoming louder and clearer with each new day, via epistles or treatises, or among the members of informal circles later known as accademie, but always in the form of dialogue—Italy (or what would actually become Italy only three centuries later) was struggling amid continuous warfare.

Today, the traces of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art and philosophy are far more visible than the scars left by the innumerable battles that at some point even became a “new normality,” just as the plague and other disasters did. Eugenio Garin, one of the twentieth century’s greatest scholars of European humanism and the Renaissance, sees this particular moment of crisis as one of the crucial factors that informed that period’s most important thought, oeuvres, and philosophy with a universal message, but always formed in one’s own microcosm, in a dialectical relationship between the contextualized temporary and the eternal.[1]

There is no need to expound on the greatness and value that the works and names from this period continue to hold for humankind, beginning from the very concept of freedom and unlimited possibilities innate to each and every individual, through the novel approach to and importance assigned to education, to the myriad discoveries in the fields of science and art.

Time will show whether the crisis we are coping with now will yield this kind of fruit to the generations to come, in the form of new ideas and thought-provoking works and discoveries. Nevertheless, one thing is for sure: the very concept of crisis means rethinking the values we cultivate, the system(s) we have created, and the steps we have taken in order to understand, adjust, and improve, so as to give meaning to our existence and make life on Earth if not better, then at least more bearable. Obviously, the humanities cannot face the pandemic from a medical standpoint, nor can they find a cure or create a vaccine. Are the humanities therefore redundant at this very moment, and, moreover, is teaching literature a false utopia when almost everything appears to be falling apart and when bare survival looms large in everyone’s mind? Is it an escape or a long journey toward the Promised Land?

Niccolò Machiavelli

Staying in the field of my research interests as an Italian literature scholar, I must call on what another Italian thinker wrote. I am referring to Niccolò Machiavelli, who has universally influenced political and historical thought and whose life and works are an evident product of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-wecentury crisis. In Chapter 25 (“What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs, And How To Withstand Her”) of his most famous treatise, The Prince (Il Principe), the Florentine author explains that one can and should fight against the unpredictable force of Fortuna, and not only that, but one even stands a chance to win (“Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less”). A memorable picture follows: Fortuna is compared to a raging river. If we survive its first strike, it is wise and necessary to think about what happened, to think it through thoroughly, engaging all our ability, experience, and knowledge gained by reading ancient authors, and analyzing our reality in order to be prepared when another similar situation arises. Because, as he says, “though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defenses and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous.”[2]

And isn’t that what teaching literature means, or at least should mean—an active and fruitful dialogue, both with people of the past and with our present times, so that one may (re)think critically and maybe even protect oneself and others from tragedies and disasters? Hence, to talk about the past, about philosophy or poetry, is to enrich your own existence, to observe the world from endless points of view. Furthermore, to convey knowledge and experience is to create future thinkers, to show them the way of honor and dignity: the dignity and virtue of curiosity. For, although a world made of words is a fragile world, words are all we have to communicate, express, create, learn, and understand. 

Due to my research activities, I happened to be at the University of Padua when the pandemic began. As I was witnessing the panic spreading along the stunning and peaceful Italian squares, my life-saving thought was the research I was (and still am) conducting; not because it made me forget the circumstances in which I had found myself—on the contrary, it was helping me to go beyond these circumstances and consider them from another, wider perspective. A few months later, in Belgrade, from the role of a doctoral student I returned to the role of a teacher. The need for reading, understanding, and sharing is a constant, and it was still there, helping me look toward the stars while rethinking the Earth. That is also what literature lessons should aspire toward: an endless “good fight” to create a context in which virtue can thrive. Our students’ questions, their curiosity, and the long discussions we have, even—or rather, especially—in these trying times, are both a strong proof of this innate human hunger for dialogue and a vital light of hope.

Literature cannot find a cure for diseases, but offers instead the benefit of the doubt, teaching us to consider everything with a pinch of salt and showing that, through the centuries, it is the doubt that has been the vital force of every kind of progress. Thus, talking about Petrarch’s existential doubts and antithetical thoughts, about Dante’s contempt for the uncommitted (ignavi), that is, those who lived their lives without making conscious moral choices and who therefore deserve neither Heaven nor Hell, or reading Pico della Mirandola’s speech about man’s freedom to be anything one decides to be—all this is not an escape, as it illuminates both the one who teaches and the one who learns (if there is any difference between those two); sometimes it is a shimmering light, as fragile as words, but it surely never goes out.

Words are delicate, fluctuating, ambiguous. To say or write is not enough, it is how something is said or written that makes the whole difference. That is what literature teaches and how literature should be taught. To translate is impossible, yet necessary, as noted by two of Trieste’s scholars, Guido Cosciani and Guido Devescovi. The same goes for teaching—teaching literature in particular, and especially teaching literature in times of a crisis.[3]

 

[1]     E. Garin, L’umanesimo italiano: filosofia e vita civile nel Rinascimento (1952), and E. Garin, La cultura del Rinascimento (1967).

[2]     N. Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by W. K. Marriott, downloaded from: https://www.holybooks.com.

[3]     C. Magris, Istantanee, Milano, La nave di Teseo, 2016, p. 178.

Survival Is Insufficient: Reflections on Social Safety Nets and the Need for Ritual, Connection, and Meaning

February 19, 2021
By 19658

Sherilyn Tan Siy, a 2007 Sylff fellow, currently lives in Japan with her husband and young children. Using the apocalyptic novel Station Eleven as a point of reference, she ponders how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of the family members, as well as those of others, and what revelations it has brought.

* * *

In late January 2020, I was reading Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven, an award-winning novel that takes place in the Great Lakes region before a fictional swine flu pandemic wipes out 99% of the population. Unlike many apocalypse novels, Mandel treats a grim subject with subtlety. Through her calm writing, she creates word tableaus that have the effect of making the unexpected stunningly beautiful, the sinister a little bit eerier, the dramatic even more gripping. It is the mark of good fiction when you begin to feel as the characters would in their situation and, despite the grimness of the subject, refuse to stop reading. Long after I have put the book down, the dread of living in a world where the few remaining people struggle to carry on weighed me down. Is there any meaning to surviving? Would we even want to be alive then?

Siy, center, with her family.

The novel bothered me so much I passed it on to my partner so we could discuss. We went out for dinner soon after he finished reading. The timing could not have been more inauspicious. Then Prime Minister Abe was slated to make an important announcement the following day, and the public, suspecting a possible lockdown, emptied the shelves à la Station Eleven of toilet paper and shelf-stable food. We asked each other, “Will this be the last time we will be able to eat out?”

My heightened unease could have been influenced by hormonal changes in my body in the third trimester of pregnancy. Our third was due to arrive in April. How safe is traveling to Tokyo by train for my check-ups? Will the hospital be overloaded with Covid-19 cases? Can my partner stay and support me in the delivery room? What sort of world will our baby be born into?

But I had more pressing and immediate concerns.

Schools abruptly closed down a few weeks short of the end of the academic year. My two children—aged nine and seven—grieved, left in limbo. As the weeks turned into months and there was no indication that school might restart anytime soon, my seven-year-old son asked whether he has already moved up a grade. First graders were required to keep a neon yellow cover on their schoolbags to enhance visibility when crossing the street. He could not wait to remove this thing that marked him as a neophyte. I realized then how important structure and rituals are, especially for children, and how the pandemic robbed us of the small and big ceremonies that mark time and growth. And so, after dinner one night, we played graduation music from the Internet and clapped after he solemnly unfastened the neon yellow cover and threw it away.

In conjunction with the sudden shutdown of schools, my after-school English classes—a significant source of my income—were also suspended until further notice. Projects for my travel writing work got canceled, and one of the international companies I worked with dissolved permanently. Some friends and family suddenly found themselves furloughed, laid off, or simply out of work. In the food bank that my partner runs, we saw a sudden increase in people lining up at the pantry. The pandemic is not a mere inconvenience but has real consequences to individuals, especially women who are likely to take on the no-work-no-pay type of jobs that allow for flexibility in childcare but also tend to be low wage and come with no security.

In my panic, I worked harder and longer at my job at the organic center, took on more shifts, and worked until the very day before I gave birth. I hurried back to work a month later, baby strapped on to me, partly because I was terrified of losing my job in a world that has become so uncertain. It turns out I need not have worried too much. Because people are cooking at home more and becoming more health conscious, orders for our organic food products skyrocketed, and our company had to move to a bigger warehouse and hire additional staff.

My partner and I are both foreigners living in Japan. We do not have family roots or cultural connections to Japan, so we often talk about the ideal country to live in and whether we might thrive better somewhere else. Now, our conversation is shaped by our most recent experiences. We consider ourselves fortunate to be in Japan where the pandemic has been handled fairly well compared to our home countries (the United States for my partner, the Philippines for me). Throughout the last trimester of my pregnancy until the birth of our son, the two hospitals we went to were never crowded. The pandemic also underscored what social safety nets Japan had in place.

・During the period of emergency measures, families suddenly felt the financial burden of feeding children at home all day. We realized how much we relied on school lunches at our public schools to provide that one affordable, nutritious meal for our kids every day. School restarted in June.

・Daycares—affordable and professionally run here in Japan—remained open, easing concerns of parents who cannot work from home.

・Books helped us keep our sanity. When our local library closed for two months, we realized how much we miss this public asset. We were lucky enough to have access to the online cloud library from my partner’s home state in the United States, but it is not a replacement for a physical space to retreat into. The library opened again at about the same time the school resumed.

・At this time, when the slightest cough is worrisome, having national health insurance gives us some peace of mind that we will be taken care of without going bankrupt.

・The national government provided a one-time ¥100,000 cash handout per person and initiated other cash grants for single parents, students, and small businesses. Local governments distributed support in the form of coupons that can be used in stores.

In Station Eleven, the year the deadly flu struck is, years later, referred to as Year Zero. With only 1% of the population left, the world is an unrecognizable mess. Covid-19 is nothing like Station Eleven, but it has made us rethink the ways we did things: What is absolutely essential? What is unnecessary? What can we do without? My introverted partner and I have been happily avoiding face-to-face meetings and gatherings and saving time and money conducting business online. There’s no need for new clothes, and makeup is frivolous when more than half your face is covered in a mask if and when you do go out.

On the downside, there’s “Zoom fatigue” and the almost-impossibility of forming warm human connections online. What we suddenly realize is most important, more than ever, are good relationships with the people we live with and see every day, our partner and children. All the time and work we have put into our family, on learning how to repair conflict and enjoy spending quality time together, even before Covid-19, has made us closer and given us a buffer in this prolonged stressful period.

Maybe this pandemic raises not only the question of whether life can or cannot return back to normal but whether we would want it to. My daughter is a member of the mini basketball team. Before Covid-19, the team used to have all-day games during the weekends. With the pandemic, everything was canceled, and we realized that we rather like having our daughter spend time with us during the weekends. Now that all-day games are slowly resuming, we find it harder to say yes to them. Covid-19 has helped us sift through what really matters and only commit to things that we truly want to do.

In Station Eleven, some survivors of the fictional pandemic banded together into a nomadic performing group called the Traveling Symphony, bringing Shakespeare to settlements across Canada and North America. On their caravan is painted the motto “Because survival is insufficient,” a line the author took from Star Trek: Voyager and, really, the thesis of the novel. Now, more than ever in the midst of alienation and collective anxiety, it is not enough to be merely alive. We search for meaning. In our family, we find ourselves doing gratitude exercises more frequently, finding small things to celebrate.

My baby, born in the thick of the pandemic, is an unusually happy baby. He can recognize when someone is smiling at him even when half the person’s face is covered up with a mask. If the person isn’t smiling, he is keen to make them smile with his gurgling. At eight months, he tries to reach out to pull down people’s masks. This is not a new reality for him but the only reality he knows. One of the lead characters in Station Eleven, Kirsten, says that the post-apocalypse world is hardest to bear for those old enough to remember how the world was before. “The more you remember, the more you’ve lost,” she explains. In some ways, yes, that is true. But if Covid-19 has forced us to rethink our lives and cull through what’s essential, then all is not lost.