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Some Thoughts about the Future of Culture in “Nonessential” Times

September 14, 2021
By 29373

Violinist Gabriele Slizyte, a 2019 Sylff fellow, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted professionals and students in culture, including herself, and poses existential questions that the pandemic has raised for her. In the latter half of the essay, Slizyte contemplates the future of culture, referencing an article by Leon Botstein that offers answers to some of her questions.

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Gabriele Slizyte

As a violinist, student in musicology at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris, and Sylff fellow since 2020, I would like to share some thoughts about the future of culture in our post-COVID society. Conceived in two parts, this essay first poses some personal questions I have been asking myself during this pandemic and then turns to an article by Leon Botstein titled “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which shares some hypotheses about the future of culture.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Cultural Workers and Students

How does it feel to work in a field that has been considered “nonessential” for more than a year now? For students and young adults, this pandemic made it difficult to visualize a professional integration someday, somehow. After we had lost all our landmarks and convictions about what our daily life should be like, it became clear that culture will still play a role in the “new normal” post-COVID world. However, as we reemerged from this forced break, we found that we have changed. Cultural events, as they might return someday, will gather a public that is already slightly different from the one we have known. How can we prepare ourselves for these changes, and how can we create a safe and interactive environment for cultural gatherings between total strangers who lived confined and in the fear of getting infected for more than a year now?

By its primary conception, culture never was an essential activity, firstly by virtue of its nonmaterial value. It is something we seek only when all the other things—stable and basic things—are assured. However, during the lockdown, we all consumed cultural products in order to stay motivated. So how do we save this nonessential activity? And wait, since when did sense and sensibility become nonessential?

After a great shock and cancellation of everything that was ongoing, cultural workers adapted themselves. Some strayed to Internet broadcast systems, rarely advantageous for classical musicians, some of whom even went viral. Some could not pay their rent, and some took forced vacations from everything to meditate on some big project they never had time to do before. And then there were students who got caught in the middle of a system they did not create. I am thinking about young professionals who just graduated, those who are still looking for jobs in a field where a long-term contract has already expired as a concept.

In France, the voice of depressed and impoverished students took almost a year to be heard. From the beginning of the pandemic, students became one of the most economically vulnerable groups of persons, directly touched by this pandemic. The social impact is here to stay, as well as an existential crisis, the one that no one is talking about because of its nonessential, more personal character. Even if we put aside the economic impact, some questions must be answered. How do we build a network since everything has gone online? How do we stay efficient and take action if you cannot practice your activity? How do we reinvent the way we work and have an impact while still sitting at home, knowing nothing about what the future folds?

On a personal level, this pandemic made me think from a more philosophical and less self-centered point of view. After so many years spent thinking about the big picture of life, we were forced to focus on details, to look after our near future more than just expecting something to happen. While deeply frustrating, this situation can also be perceived as an invitation to think about new ways of making things. Can culture be less international and more local? Could cultural workers also have an ecological impact in the era of the new green deal? Can we create more social impact for our communities?

Botstein’s Action Plan for Music in the Post-COVID World

Leon Botstein, Conducting the American Symphony Orchestra - photo by Matt Dine.

In the second part of this short essay, I would like to review an article titled “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic”1 by Leon Botstein, which, in my opinion, is worthy of our attention. The discourse of this paper inspires comments because it puts into words things that are sometimes difficult to formulate. More than an action plan, it makes us rethink our conception of culture and can actually be transposed to any field.

Swiss-American conductor, academic administrator, and president of Bard College, Leon Botstein is an editor of the Musical Quarterly. This scholarly musical journal is one of the most important and renowned publications, offering brilliant, neat, and critical papers that are shaping the musical domain.

Naturally enough, Mr. Botstein does not limit himself to just offering an immersion into a dramatic situation that has been shaking American cultural workers. He proposes a seven-point action plan that could help “to prevent the 2020 pandemic from devastating, for future generations, the practice and place of music in American life.”[1] Let us just extend this geographical approach to any country in the world that has a tradition of art music.

“Music must become intensely local,”[2] begins Botstein, proposing a conception opposite of worldwide concert tours that could be applied to any popular band or singer. And why not, because an artist has the power to create a dynamic community where a collaboration and exchange between listeners and music makers could replace a wall syndrome in which both are separated as in the traditional conception of a scene. Music should be “perform[ed] in public spaces” and more often leave traditional concert halls.[3] We should encourage a “direct interaction between performer, composer, and the audience, before, between, and after performances.”[4] Culture needs the public because, by its definition, it is a social activity where reception plays a final role. However, our public must be encouraged to take a real place in music making.

After reading Botstein’s article, I felt as if I was being invited to take more concrete action besides my activities as a musicologist, researcher, and performer—to conceive a project, to create a new learning tool, to dynamize our old conception of culture. I am not sure whether it could prevent us from devastating the practice and place of music, but it could, I hope, help us to be more ready and more awake the next time a dark cloud comes over our path.

Written in Paris in February 2021.

1 Leon Botstein, “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Musical Quarterly 102, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 351–360.

[1] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 357.

[2] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 357.

[3] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 358.

[4] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 359.

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Municipality of Pallini, Greece: How Covid-19 Has Affected the Delivery of Supporting Services

September 3, 2021
By 24941

Eleni Konstantinou, a 2001 Sylff fellow, is a psychologist and group and family therapist who now works for the municipality of Pallini, Greece. She discusses how the measures in response to COVID-19 have impacted social support services in the municipality, with personal observations about how people, including herself, have adjusted largely positively to the lack of direct contact.

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The aim of this article is to present how COVID-19 and the imposed measures have altered, changed, and affected the delivery of supporting services such as psychological support, consulting, and lifelong learning programs in the Municipality of Pallini.

I am a psychologist, family and group therapist, and a member of the Sylff community. I received the Sylff grant in 2001 during my postgraduate studies in school psychology. In 2018 I was very honored to be chosen to attend the Sylff Leaders Workshop in Japan—a great experience that helped me deepen my knowledge in international cooperation for a common goal. I had the chance to meet and communicate with exceptional people from all over the world who are expert in their field of work and studies. I also had the privilege of experiencing and tasting Japan’s culture. I am more than thankful to the Sylff Association secretariat for organizing this memorable and unique event with great success.

I have been working in the Municipality of Pallini (Region of Eastern Attica, Greece) for a decade. Since 2016, I have been in charge of the Education, Continuing Education, and Culture Section of the Department of Social Policy.

The mayor of Pallini, Mr. Athanasios Zoutsos, expresses the basic principle of the municipality during the pandemic as follows: “Νo one should be left alone, without access to public services in these harsh times.” But how could this happen? Is it possible for people to access public services when there are strict measures on circulation to lower the number of active COVID-19 cases? After the outbreak of the pandemic, people have had to send a text message to 13033 to get a circulation permit within their prefecture. Οne can only move around for health reasons (e.g., to see a doctor or to go to the hospital or pharmacy), to shop at the supermarket, to go to the bank, or to help someone in need. It is also permissible for divorced parents to visit their children. If a ceremony such as a wedding, christening, or funeral takes place, only a few relatives are able to attend. Finally, in order to leave the house, everyone must carry an ID and send the aforementioned required message to 13033, even if it is to walk his or her dog or just exercise individually. Wearing face masks is compulsory everywhere. Due to the above, when the mayor of Pallini speaks of supporting the citizens, he is referring to the ability to access public services mainly digitally via Internet. Moreover, because of the reduction in circulation, there are certain cases where municipal staff must visit vulnerable people in need and offer goods for free from the local grocery store.

If I could briefly explain my current position, I would mostly refer to consulting, consultation programs, and consulting groups for parents and teachers. Furthermore, part of my job is to organize continuing education activities and programs and supervise school cleaning staff.

Consulting

Before the outbreak of the pandemic crisis, people used to visit me in my office at the Town Hall, asking for information and apply for consulting. A therapeutic procedure was designed according to their needs, including personal consulting sessions, couples’ therapy, and even group therapy. That was the formal procedure. Now consulting is mostly done on the phone. People can receive our services only with prior arrangement by phone. We are all obliged to wear masks and keep a 1.5-m distance.

Personal contact is essential during consulting. Now that we miss smiles and facial expressions in general, we have to cultivate and promote other skills to communicate effectively with one another. In the beginning, counseling on the phone was a bit awkward for both therapist and client, since our service is not a phone line. But we had to adjust to the current situation and overcome this obstacle by focusing on the voice tone, the pauses, or even the breathing. Unfortunately, group therapy meetings had to stop for safety reasons.

Meeting with teachers at school.

Moreover, we created a series of videos with relaxing music in the background, pleasant images, and tips on surviving curfew (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p711Di-3Nc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwmL4v_1hok, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xY6PZCDLsPg). Making these videos was incredible, as I worked together with people whom I had never met. We cooperated harmoniously and effectively without knowing one another. Respecting one another and knowing that we were working for a common goal were enough for us. Our meetings were held only by telephone. I was very honored that my script was narrated by a famous Greek actor and member of the City Council, Mrs. Aspasia Tzitzikaki, while Mr. Michalis Christodoulides composed the original soundtrack. Finally, Mrs. Karolina Kosmetatou was responsible for the image editing. Because of the current circumstances, we have not managed to meet till now! What we have learned from this experience is that such skills as flexibility, adjustment, and resilience are essential not only for survival but also for creativity.

Consultation

Before the pandemic crisis, I used to visit schools following teachers’ requests to help them deal with students’ behavioral problems. In addition, the principal of the school would organize staff meetings with me to overcome unpleasant situations at schools involving students, teachers, and parents. Now that schools are closed and lessons are held via an Internet platform (Webex), my communication with teachers and school personnel is limited to the phone. Teachers mention the lack of communication, especially with high school students, and all the difficulties that arise during Webex lessons. They are also anxious about their students’ mental health. Now mental resilience is more important than learning!

School for Parents

The Online School for Parents.

The implementation of prevention programs is one of the main goals of our services. In this context, the School for Parents is a counseling and informative program for parents. There are more than 90 applicants, and approximately half of them attend the lectures. In March 2020 we were forced to stop the meetings because of the enforcement of strict measures against the pandemic. To keep in touch with parents and students, we created a blog with relevant articles written by the guest speakers so that parents would not feel alone or isolated during COVID times. In June 2020 we managed to meet again at the closing ceremony, taking all the necessary measures. During this academic year we had to reform and redesign the format of the School for Parents. We thus organized , consisting entirely of online meetings that took t place once a week every Wednesday from 6 to 8 pm (from January to May 2021). Parents could attend them from their homes. For each session we had a distinguished guest speaker addressing such topics as addiction, safer Internet, eating disorders, learning disabilities, resilience, tips for parents to help their children face the new reality during the pandemic, and crisis management. We missed the direct contact, but it proved to be  very helpful for parents not to have to leave their home and children to attend the lectures.. Parents have expressed gratefulness for this program and that they are looking forward to our meetings. So do we!

Continuing Education activities and program

Continuing education is a very lively program in our municipality. Whenever a program starts, there are many applicants who are interested in taking part in the classes. IT classes for adults were usually held twice a week in municipal buildings. The last program was conducted until July 20, 2020. We were obliged to take all the necessary preventive measures against COVID-19. However, after the last strict measures of quarantine, the programs of continuing education were canceled, following the school closure. But in this case the courses have not been continued by distance learning.

Networking

Networking is necessary for me daily. I think that no one can solve all the problems by oneself. We all need one another. For instance, I come in contact with other institutions (e.g., hospitals and social services) and professionals (e.g., social workers and psychiatrists) in order to effectively face a complex psychosocial case. Networking is very useful between different services that face similar problems and difficulties. In addition, it can be helpful in encouraging solidarity among people. In January 2020, we organized a meeting with mental health specialists from other municipalities, hospitals, and mental health services. We closed this event with a wish as well as a promise to meet again. Unfortunately, we have not managed to make it happen until now due to the circumstances, but I am thinking of proposing a Webex meeting instead. We need to stay connected!

Before closing this article, I would like to underline the necessity of solidarity. Close contact is now being avoided, but this does not have to make people feel alone. Even in conditions of limitation, we can get close to our loved ones and connect with respect for one another, with love and caring, so that we can have a good time and remain safe and healthy, without fear!

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Why Do We Need Vaccines Now?

August 4, 2021
By 29262

Drawing on the field of health economics, 2002 Sylff fellow Matheus Albergaria contemplates the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for collective health and possible solutions. Vaccines are one such solution, as well as social distancing and the wearing of masks in public places. But for these measures to be effective, it is key that individuals consider the impact that their actions may have on collective well-being.

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The first records of the so-called coronavirus 2019 disease (COVID-19) occurred in late 2019. As the name suggests, COVID-19 is caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), being generally associated with such symptoms as fever, dry cough, and tiredness, although other symptoms may also appear in more severe cases of the disease. Throughout the year 2020, the spread of the virus across numerous countries occurred at an astonishing speed; recent data from October 2020 suggest the confirmation of more than 190 million cases, as well as deaths in excess of 4 million worldwide.

An important aspect related to the COVID-19 pandemic concerns its consequences in terms of collective health. Few people outside the field of economics are aware of the existence of a field of study called “health economics,” in which scholars employ economic logic to evaluate health policy interventions, such as in the case of COVID-19. In this article, I will illustrate possible ways in which we can use the lessons from this field to understand some characteristics of the pandemic, as well as possible solutions related to it.

Since collective health can be seen as a special category of goods needed by a society—so-called public goods—it is important to take into account the potential implications derived from such a categorization. Specifically, public goods have two unique characteristics: they are (i) “non-excludable” and (ii) “non-rival.” That is, it is not possible to exclude anyone from their consumption (non-exclusionary property), while at the same time, the consumption of the goods by one person does not necessarily affect the consumption of other people in society (non-rivalry property). Examples of public goods—in addition to public health itself—are national security, maritime lighthouses, fireworks, public parks, and beaches. (It is worth noting that all these examples are non-excludable and non-rival goods.)

The main challenge related to public goods concerns the possible emergence of differences between individual interests and collective well-being. For example, in the case of public health issues, a person may wonder if it makes sense to comply with a period of quarantine at home, wear a mask in public places, or maintain social distance, as their actions may have seemingly insignificant impacts in social terms. In other words, in situations like this, a person may ask the following question: “Will my actions have any significant impact on the rest of society?” If the answer to this question is no, the person is likely to have little incentive to cooperate with collective well-being, since he views his individual actions as socially insignificant. One problem arising from thinking along these lines is that if many people think this way, it will be very difficult for society to achieve public health goals (as well as any goal involving collective action). Such situations are known as “social dilemmas”; actions that apparently make sense from an individual point of view do not necessarily lead to the best results from a social point of view. This fact has important implications for the current pandemic situation that we are experiencing in the world. Since collective health can be seen as a public good, a high degree of coordination between individual actions and society’s goals becomes necessary. The biggest challenge for a government in a context involving public goods is to coordinate individual actions so as to obtain results that are satisfactory for society as a whole.

Another important aspect related to the COVID-19 pandemic concerns the occurrence of a phenomenon known by economists as “externalities” (or “external effects”). Basically, externalities correspond to “market failures,” that is, situations in which the market system ceases to function properly, generating inefficient results from a societal point of view. In such situations, it would be possible to improve the situation of some people in society without necessarily harming others—that is, it would be possible to generate efficient solutions, economically speaking.

Externalities occur when the actions of an individual or firm have unplanned consequences on other parties (similar to the side effects of any action, which can be both positive and negative). For example, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is the possibility of negative externalities occurring, since some people may infect others without even knowing that they are infected with the coronavirus. (In fact, there are several reports of asymptomatic cases of the virus.) That is, even without having the intention of harming other people, an infected person can end up harming society as a whole.

An extreme example of the occurrence of negative externalities is the “Tragedy of the Commons,” a parable created in the nineteenth century to explain the potential adverse consequences of situations involving goods known as “common resources.” Although these goods are excluding as public goods, they are rivals—that is, the consumption of the good by an individual affects its availability to other individuals. Examples of common resources would be common property land, as well as fish in the sea and some animal species. (Not coincidentally, this parable has been used extensively in biology.) According to this “tragedy,” differences between individual interests and social interests could lead to a situation in which society ends up losing out as a whole. For example, a situation in which all people in a society have access to a common resource—such as the commons in England for a time—raises the possibility of the emergence of patterns of excessive consumption of that resource, which could lead to the society ending up in a worse situation in terms of social welfare. (The commons could become sterile, in this case.)

But what do these hypotheses say to us? First, the occurrence of market failures along the lines discussed here may suggest a more active role for governments around the globe. Since the market does not always result in efficient situations from a social point of view, there may be a role for government in the economy. For example, one way for governments to alleviate the pandemic’s adverse effects is by evaluating the occurrence of externalities between individuals in the current context. Additionally, the fact that the coronavirus displays patterns of complementarity with other sources of morbidity—such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart problems—makes the case for the government to implement public policies focused on disseminating information related to possible forms of contagion.

A potential solution to the COVID-19 pandemic that has been widely publicized by the media and debated by society in recent times is the creation of vaccines capable of protecting individuals from the adverse effects of the virus. From an economic point of view, an effective vaccine in combating the virus must at least have two basic properties. First, the vaccine must have the characteristics of what economists call a “public good”: non-exclusiveness (no person should be excluded from its reach) and non-rivalry (the fact that a person receives the vaccine should not prevent other people from receiving it). Taken together, these two characteristics could justify a vaccine supply to be provided by the government in a pandemic context.

Second, unlike the virus, a vaccine must be associated with the occurrence of positive externalities. In the case of the current pandemic, an effective vaccine must be able to generate a kind of “spillover effect” in terms of immunization. Specifically, the fact that a person is vaccinated could prevent other people from being infected by the virus over time (a result that depends on the effectiveness of the vaccine in question). Ultimately, vaccines generate positive externalities.

One way to have a vaccine with these characteristics would be through its provision and free distribution by the government. Although there are substantial costs associated with such an undertaking, we must take into account the potential costs—of greater magnitude, probably—associated with the possible occurrence of a new wave of contagions in the world if an insufficient number of people are vaccinated.

Another way for governments to combat the adverse effects of the pandemic is through the introduction of public policies based on so-called merit goods, goods that the government obliges people to consume, assuming that they are not always able to make favorable choices for their own well-being. In the case of the current pandemic, two examples of such goods are the policy of social distancing and the wearing of masks in places such as supermarkets or sports gyms.

The situations described in this article point to the importance of considering differences between individual interests and collective well-being. In other words, what is best for an individual or group of individuals may not be better for society as a whole. A potential way to alleviate the harmful effects of the pandemic is through the collaboration of everyone in society: if one person collaborates—taking vaccines, following the quarantine regime, wearing masks in public places, and maintaining social distance—everyone benefits from it. Ultimately, it is important to consider the interaction between individual interests and collective well-being in an increasingly complex and diverse society where market failures may occur. From an economist’s point of view, possible solutions to the pandemic are not easy, although they are possible as long as each person considers the possible impacts of their actions on society as a whole.

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Credence, Chlorine and Curfew: Doing Ethnography under the Pandemic

July 15, 2021
By 28933

If there is one profound truth about ethnography, it is that intimacy,
and not distancing, is crucial.

(Fine and Abramson 2020, 1)

 

Sara Nikolić, a 2020 Sylff fellow, has had to conduct ethnographic fieldwork under the coronavirus pandemic. In this candid account of how the challenge affected her, emotionally as well as in terms of the course of her research, Nikolić says the experience reinforced her love of ethnography and her belief that it is not interchangeable with other methods.

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Starting fieldwork and facing the most significant academic endeavour in a young researcher‘s life is probably never easy. Starting fieldwork in your neighbourhood may sound like a good idea—only until the first wave of the doubt to your research site, the ability to set boundaries and juggle the insider perspective engulfs you. However, starting fieldwork in a densely populated large housing estate under the “first wave” of a global pandemic never sounded like a good idea.

“The expected delay in collecting data will abort many ethnographies. COVID-19 and its future viral siblings may deter those who would pursue ambitious field studies”. However, my research is not really that ambitious. So I try. In weeks when the number of infected seem to be declining, when everyone around me is healthy and when I manage to overcome typical postgraduate insecurities, I keep trying.

These lines are a testament to my confrontation with the flagrant fact that it is not entirely up to me—that I have chosen to relinquish control. In that sense, this essay is an attempt to become aware, articulate and accept how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the course of my doctoral research. This essay is an intimate confession about waiting and learning patience rather than about concrete adjustments of urban ethnography methodology to the crisis that has befallen us. In the following lines I will try to reconstruct the pandemic induced research challenges that led me to reinforce my love of ethnography and the value-laden belief that it is not interchangeable with other qualitative methods.

Alterations in a two-storey residential unit in blok 70, New Belgrade. Photo: Dušan Rajić

 Strict curfew introduced by the Serbian Government in March 2020 prohibited people over the age of 65 from leaving the house and occasionally prohibiting younger citizens from leaving their homes for up to 84 hours. When a vibrant and pulsating city dies abruptly, when its citizens’ movement is more restricted than during the bombing, little of the urban life remains for us, researchers of the everydayness, to explore. In the COVID-19 urban landscape of Belgrade—and any other city—intimate, in-person human subject research was (unofficially) prohibited, making ethnography an almost impossible method. Not only did conducting research seem impossible to me at the time, but the very idea of denying the situation we were in deeply disturbed me. The repulsion was so strong that it paralysed me even to dare to approach my neighbours, the rare passers-by who enjoy the spring sun, or the “privileged” individuals who were allowed to walk their dogs, with a request to participate in the research that had nothing to do with our current lifeworlds.

 However, hundreds of photographs, dozens of folders, transcripts, voice recordings, several “smell maps” and a few new acquaintances testify that I have not given up. Nevertheless, for senso-biographic approach and focusing on smell-evoked memories of urban environment that form the backbone of my doctoral research, as well as for the informants’ photographic diaries not to become (only) testaments of life under siege by the virus, I had to wait for the “first wave” to come to an end.

 I don’t know what the smell of my building would be, before this, I would probably say mould from the basement or the smell of cigarettes in the elevator, but all I feel now is chlorine. It smells like a kindergarten. (M, blok 45, female)

 One of my main research interests—self-management in socialist era large housing estates—lurked behind every freshly disinfected staircase. Many buildings’ occupants self-organised into weekly or even daily cleanings to keep the entrances and corridors clean and their families or flatmates safe from the virus. In improvised protective equipment consisting of colourful scarves tied over their faces, rubber gloves and old clothes, armed with their buckets, rags, brooms and mops and the last remaining Domestos or any other chlorine-based disinfectant provided by the municipality, these female troops regained control of the space for the benefit of all. As if taking control of the cleaning schedule, maintaining a routine, following the prescribed steps and performing it together for a moment made the situation outside seem less uncertain.

Bestowing details of these events I recognised as an initiation into the house council simply seemed too intrusive. I hesitated and refused to keep a journal record about self-organized cleaning episodes and to reiterate muffled staircase gossip I overheard during these rites of passage. It almost felt treacherous as in a moment of crisis I perceived my role in the apartment building as a tenant, a neighbour and a girl next door—rather than a cold, rigid and objective researcher.

Therefore, a fellow researcher reading this essay could assume that the research’s explicit part—such as interviews—went better than sketching notes and palpation of the neighbourhood pulse based on informal encounters. A reader could also assume that I, being a girl next door, had no trouble recruiting my neighbours. However, that assumption would be wrong. The fact that I lived close by and was a few minutes’ walk from them, that I was a friendly face they saw on their evening strolls was simply not enough. Nor was the fact that I knew some mutual friends and shared the local references. Lastly, the incentives that I could offer under the Sylff fellowship were irrelevant and insufficient. None of that matters when the danger from an infection is so tangible, and your family members are chronically ill, or you are pregnant or homeschooling your children, or someone close to you has passed away. And on my part, as a vulnerable and empathetic researcher, I could not give up the contacts I built under those trying circumstances and the trust I gained. To this day, I haven’t been able to use some deadline as an argument to recruit new, healthy, childless or carefree informants instead of ones who expressed interest and indicated trust, but their participation was postponed due to objective circumstances.

Ethnographic kit under COVID-19. Photo: Sara Nikolić

As a trained ethnographer, I learned about great heroes who went into the wilderness, who “through toughness and perseverance . . . overcome entry barriers”. I, of course, looked up to them. I too wanted to become a hero who overcame the ethnographic odds.

The reality is that I was anxious, frustrated, and impatient. I envied colleagues who enjoyed moments of privilege where they “finally have time to write”. The rising academic pressure, the “figure-it-out-on-your-own” University policy, the “just send me any chapter you have, and we will count it an exam” helping hand of my professors, the crowdsourced documents that offer solutions for “avoiding in-person interactions by using mediated forms that will achieve similar ends” seemed to conflict with the immersion aspect of ethnography I strived for.

These attempts to stay loyal to the ethnography I believe in bring along many pursuits to establish contact with potential respondents, many cancelled or indefinitely postponed meetings, many unanswered calls and messages, and too many sympathetic shrugs. Moments of elation are quickly followed by ones of letdown and despair. I try to push forward. Sometimes I slip or get lost along the way. Sometimes I try to fix it, reinvent my entry strategy, and rely on snowballing instead of a more organic approach. Seeing that I am only halfway in the process of collecting “the deep data”, I cannot refer to the quality and density of the obtained material.

Working version of the “smell map” of Blok 45, New Belgrade. Source: Sara Nikolić

 We will take a walk outside, in the fresh air and try to grasp your neighbourhood’s smells, and we will both wear masks. It does not interfere with the quality of the recording—I often explain to my potential informants. Smell mapping while wearing (K)N95 masks, however, does not really work. Instead of fleeting but current and vivid neighbourhood smells that we could not detect while wearing masks, during our strolls we frequently evoked childhood memories intertwined with the ubiquitous scents of the area, such as linden blossom or sludge.

Ding dong! The sound of footsteps, the unlocking of doors and clumsy contactless greetings. Just there, I would usually insist on taking off my shoes, as is the epidemiological recommendation and custom in this area. Furthermore, as good hosts, as an expression of respect for the guest, they would insist that I leave the shoes on. After those initial negotiations at the front door, I would get a bottle of alcohol to disinfect my shoes and mobile phone upon entering the apartment. And then, still from a distance, a hand gesture to signal in which direction the toilet is so that I can wash my hands before the interview. When the weather was nice, we would spend visits to the apartment on the balconies or with the windows open, sitting within a reasonable distance.

On a sunny September day, when everything was going at a good pace, the unglamorous and petty disappointment came. It was caused by an informant’s rejection to invite me into his apartment for the final interview, although it was agreed in advance. Of course, I did not let the injured ego peek outside, so I played it cool. However, I was still ashamed of my feelings, of the vanity that flooded me. Why did I take it so personally? Wasn’t I the one who told him he has the right to give up at any moment and set boundaries in which he feels comfortable and safe? How could I not have understood the respect he had for advised physical distance? Have I forgotten that I am not merely a researcher but a possible vector too?

Object elicitation and disinfection in the informant’s apartment. Photo: Sara Nikolić

 Although I do not attach half the importance to this episode today as I did on that September day, it encouraged me to think about how many people passed through my apartment from March to September? Very few, and I knew them all. I trust them. I know how responsible they are, how much they follow all the recommendations, how much they care and how much they are in solidarity with the people around them. Is it possible that I was so upset because I interpreted this man’s responsibility or privacy as distrust? So what if he was distrustful? Don’t we all have the right to be distrustful at a time when we are in danger from an “unknown enemy”, when the media is co-opting military rhetoric, when contradictory information and mutually exclusive recommendations are coming from all sides? Aren’t we, citizens of a country that declared coronavirus “the most ridiculous virus in the world”, and shortly afterwards deprived us of freedom of movement, justifiably distrustful towards anything and anyone? Amidst growing distrust that surrounds us, how can we closely and intimately research something as personal as home, something as inseparable from issues of trust as community relations and self-organization?

 Much as we might adapt our research plans to alternative methods in the current crisis and agree to data-oriented techniques such as structured interviews, we must not forget the importance of the immersive experience and deep hanging out for ethnography. As this crisis helped me rediscover that ethnography is not interchangeable with other qualitative methods, I realised that the pragmatic choice to take time was ideological. The choice that was the only possible one, and the one that I needed—to embrace the vulnerable researcher within me and remain faithful to ethnography at the cost of breaking deadlines and delaying my studies. The choice to advocate for slow science. A science that is not an end in itself, a science that is not cruel and does not require sacrifices or preposterous heroic deeds, a science that does not exploit or endanger the subjects under study. That is science based on questioning and building trust instead of taking it for granted.


Reprinted from
https://www.ijurr.org/spotlight-on/becoming-an-urban-researcher-during-a-pandemic/credence-chlorine-and-curfew-doing-ethnography-under-the-pandemic/

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Stressors: Observations from a Series of Workshops on Stress and Well-Being Conducted in India during the COVID-19 Related Lockdown

July 1, 2021
By 19594

Based on a webinar series she gave in August 2020, 2012 Sylff fellow Anindita Roy shares her observations on stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected people differently. Turning to the current culture of information sharing and virtual communication, Roy also touches on the importance of consuming information mindfully.

 * * *

I conducted a series of workshops on responding to stress and mental well-being for a local charity at Jamshedpur, India, during the COVID-19 related countrywide lockdown. As part of the workshop, multiple online sessions were offered and were open for all. The broader theme to cover was understanding stress and coping with stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These sessions were roughly divided into learning about the stress response and developing resilience to enhance mental well-being. I would like to share through this article observations that formed part of these sessions. However, let me add at the start that the article does not present tools and tips. I am wary of making general prescriptions about stress and coping, although surely one can speak of these more generally. My biggest hope in sharing this article is one of solidarity with my extended Sylff family during these difficult times, by sharing with you another perspective of the COVID experience in another part of the globe. In times when each of us has been confined in our worlds and lives, in isolation and isolated, sometimes alone or lonely, I hope this article brings with it the hope that you are not alone and that we are in this together.

The poster for a series of sessions that the author conducted on stress and mental well-being.


On Difference

For a major part of the world’s population today, a pandemic of this scale had not formed a part of our lived experiences. Forcing us to negotiate with something we had no experience of in living memory, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the status quo, and the world continues to strive for a “new normal” amid this crisis and beyond. At its peak, the pandemic instilled a general unease in connecting with others, forging a different culture of connection. As we continue to practice social distancing, in many cases, company is still viewed as risky and contact potentially fatal. The epidemic, the related lockdown, and its intensity have not been the same for all. The unprecedented chaos has had different effects on our lives, raising varied concerns. Within the context of the workshop too, it was observed that the pandemic influenced my participants and me very differently. It was necessary to acknowledge as well that it is not only about the pandemic but also about the people and their response to it, and that people are different too.

In an activity with the participants, I encouraged everyone to write with their body parts instead of a pen or pencil. They were requested, for example, to write letters and numbers in the air with their elbows, knees, tongue, and left hand. None of my participants in this session were differently abled, and many initially found the exercise “awkward” and “funny” as they were encouraged to keep their cameras on during this part. Although the scope of the session did not allow us to look at the theme of the body, issues of difference, and disability in great depth, the exercise offered the participants another perspective on their own abilities and the way it may be represented to themselves and others. For instance, some shared that they struggled to twist their tongues or bend their knees, while others who had imagined they could not write with their left hands did so with great ease. There was one participant who noted that their shoulder blade hurt immensely while trying to use their right elbow when making figures in the air.

In a way, this exercise offered an awareness to the participants about the others in their group but also presented the opportunity to know a little more about themselves—at least in that moment. Being on the same boat but not (quite!) in the same journey, this helped with an understanding of difference, while simultaneously offering the possibility to learn together, albeit differently from one another.

On Stress

The above exercise offered a useful understanding of stress itself. Stress affects everyone, and everyone feels stressed from time to time. Yet some cope with it more effectively and recover from stressful events faster than others. When the demands placed on us in any given situation are much greater than the resources we may have (or percieve we have), we find ourselves stressed in trying to meet these demands. Stress is the call for a sense of balance in the face of a perceived imbalance. Stress is different for everyone, and no two people respond to stressors in the same way. What maybe stressful for one person may not be stressful for another, and even if it is, the response to stress and the coping mechanisms could be vastly different between individuals.

Not all stress is bad. In life-threatening situations, stress prepares the body to either fight the threat or flee from it. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can be motivating. Long-term stress, however, is straining on our body and mind, contributing to serious complications and compromising physical and mental well-being. Dealing or coping with stress can be learned and, with practice, can be implemented effectively. This does not eradicate stress in and of itself, nor does it guarantee that one will never be stressed again. However, it offers a roadmap to meander stressful situations, equipping the individual with tools to communicate with stress in productive awareness.

On Stressors

Awareness of symptoms helps with diagnosis. Recognizing stressors is a crucial step toward developing tools to deal with stress. My participants shared some of their stressors specific to COVID-19 and the related lockdown. Most were related to such issues as health in the face of the epidemic, achieving a work-life balance in a work-from-home environment, family conflicts from more time spent at home, difficult conversations due to death, illness, or job loss, and public speaking in meetings via Zoom calls. In going through some of these stressors, an overarching theme that came up was how the pandemic had changed the lives of the participants in different ways. Some of my participants had lost their jobs, some expressed concerns about sick family and friends, and yet others were left worried about elderly parents or children living alone at another location. On the one hand, there was the frustration of students lacking sufficient support and the ambiguity of older school goers on the verge of preparing for their career-defining examinations. On the other hand, there were teachers dealing with the additional responsibility of adapting to newer technologies for teaching and evaluation, as well as pay cuts, in some cases. Most of these stressors fed into a sense of uncertainty. Meanwhile, there were a few participants who expressed their efforts in “trying to find a silver lining” as they talked of rediscovering their long-lost hobbies, nurturing skills such as baking, pottery, poetry writing, and gardening, finding time to exercise, eating healthier, reading more, and writing journals, to name a few.

During these sessions, the participants were encouraged to reflect on how the pandemic and the related lockdown had impacted their lives in terms of perceived differences between before and after the pandemic. These helped explain to a certain degree the levels of stress brought about by sudden changes such as death, illness, and unemployment and stress related to changes in routine such as the pressures of school, work, family, and other responsibilities. The very nature of the epidemic, the ever-evolving research, government guidelines and containment measures, death tolls, major gaps from unequal access to a variety of resources, ranging from healthcare to education to support services, etc, and related information—these all added to the atmosphere of dealing with an unknown future, the uncertainty of not knowing, or the inability to accurately predict some semblance of a known “normal.” (Dare I mention the minefield of mis/disinformation further adding to the confusion?)

My participants and I wondered if we could structure some sense of certainty in the face of unprecedented changes, and how. The idea of this attempt was not to judge whether the glass is half full or half empty but to give back to the participants the power to refill the glass, even amid the crisis. A sense of the familiar in the face of overwhelming change somehow offers a sense of control or of taking back some control. My participants and I discussed forming a routine that suited them and how having one was helpful to combat uncertainty by establishing some predictability. One way to do this is goal setting, preferably setting small achievable chunks as part of formulating one’s routine. This not only helps to get organized but also brings back a sense of certainty and control by helping the individual to lean into things that one can change within their routine. This is also a good way of attaining motivation. Nonetheless, this also extended to the disclaimer that one must not blindly borrow someone else’s routine, specifically out of the “fear of missing out.”

Within the ambience of “influencers,” information overload, and frequent “forwards,” “likes,” “comments,”and “subscribes,” the consumption and sharing of information is undeniably important to one’s overall well-being. Another stressor, broadly relevant to the contemporary age of newer technologies and the present culture of virtual communication, is FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” FOMO was a significant stressor for some of my participants during the lockdown. For instance, it was distressing for a participant how a friend had lost weight while they had piled on multiple kilograms during the lockdown. They had found creative expression through online platforms and were unhappy with the number of “likes” they had on their pictures and profile. Their friend had been following a certain diet and achieved a significant “transformation,” along with more subscribers, likes, and views from the pictures shared since the “transformation,” or so thought this participant. The latter was extremely eager to go on the new diet and transform themselves too in the lockdown. They did not initially feel the need to consult a nutritionist and said that all the information about the diet was available for free online. My personal hesitation about the diet is that it leaves out an entire food group, but my participant did not want to lose out on the benefits—benefits they thought their friend had gained from following this certain diet.

I would like to end this article with a brief take on “infobesity,” or information overload, another stressor in the lockdown. Information today is widely available and often easily accessible at the click of a button (at least to many sections across society, if not everywhere). However, when there is too much information, there is also the possibility of mis/disinformation. This was briefly discussed in the context of the pandemic in one of my sessions. At the risk of repeating what my researcher colleagues may already know, here are some ways to challenge information abuse (and also help with information overload):

  1. Verify information before you consume it. When verifying the authenticity of a piece of information, check for the information’s
  2. time stamp
  3. where it was published
  4. their author
  5. the intended audience
  6. whether the information is sponsored in any way, and if so, whether the sponsorship or affiliation is clearly declared to avoid any conflict of interest.
  7. Be mindful when sharing information with another. Pause. Think. Forward (or maybe not).

The COVID-19 lockdown saw instances of information abuse in the form of inaccurate information and fake news. Although not typical to the pandemic and its related lockdown, information abuse should be challenged, and one can do so only if one is mindful of their information consumption. Information is useful. Information about COVID-19, local guidelines, helpline numbers, food banks, and now vaccines is significant and potentially life saving. Information is power, and I take this opportunity to remind us of the power we have and of the choices we can continue to make even in crisis, and beyond.

General sessions open for the public can be viewed at:

https://youtu.be/BJEBGn2CLSE

https://youtu.be/CIpDX0SGa1Q

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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. 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.