On the way forward, we must move with care

With lockdowns in force around the world, deciding the way ahead demands a delicate balance of clarity and compassion from people and institutions

April 16, 2020
Man on tightrope
Source: Getty

As the world gets used to life on a tightrope, the question we all face is one of balance.

Those coordinating national responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have shifted their focus from whether to impose lockdown, to how testing, contact-tracing and phased re-emergence may allow us to find a way out of it.

The question is often discussed in terms of a dichotomy: that this is about lives vs the economy. But the reality is more complex.

In a discussion paper published by the Institute of Labor Economics, the economists Andrew Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee suggest that perhaps the best balance, combining economics and epidemiology, would be to “release” young adults aged 20?to 30 who do not live with their parents.

In the UK, this would allow about 4.2?million people to return to work – those who, statistically, are least likely to die from Covid-19, and who may suffer most if their jobs disappear.

But the judgement goes beyond a simple calculation of infection rate vs unemployment rate, factoring in the collateral damage likely to be done by an indefinite lockdown.

It points to the increased risks of depression and domestic violence, as well as the potential benefits of “offering a?leadership role to the young in a moment of crisis”.

Others may counter that such an approach just adds to intergenerational inequality.

“If the burden of taxation and economic responsibility falls on a generation who have already had to endure elevated rents, work insecurity, and student debt…things are going to get ugly,” said one commentator on Twitter.

The point is that there is no black and white in all this, and every decision that affects life as we know it has far-reaching and unpredictable implications.

The same is true of the lockdown’s impact on universities, and in our news pages we assess the situation for both teaching and research.

In the case of the latter, there are obvious areas of research – namely anything that?might contribute to the pandemic response –?that are exempted from the general shutdown.

However, the balance that needs to be struck in other important areas is less clear cut.

Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, tells us that there is a “risk of focusing completely on the corona issue, and ignoring or at least not taking into account that there are other problems. There is a?life in science beyond the virus.”

Others worry that the ultra-competitive nature of elite science?might push some to take unnecessary risks. “Scientists are absolutely driven…all they care about is getting back to work,” said Ivan Baines, chief operating officer of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden.

The balancing act is going to get harder with time. Like most of us, researchers may have work they can get on with remotely for a period, but lab work cannot be postponed indefinitely.

In a second news analysis, we consider how teaching and learning are being affected as the scramble to move online transforms into something resembling order.

Those willing to see silver linings at this stage believe there may be upsides?– particularly for assessment, and measures to ensure academic integrity.

Elsewhere, the difficulty of striking the right balance is evident in the way that some politicians have dealt with issues relating to international higher education.

In comments strikingly lacking in empathy, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, last week advised overseas students that it was “time to go?home”.

Morrison said that it was “lovely to have visitors to Australia in good times”, but now they should “make your way home” and “ensure that you can receive the supports that are available…in your home countries. At this time, Australia must focus on its citizens.”

Australian universities, and the country’s wider economy, have benefited from many billions of dollars brought in by those “lovely visitors” (if that’s what international students are) in recent years.

Given the likely downturn in international student traffic once the public health crisis subsides, and the sensitivity of students and their families to how welcoming countries are perceived to be, Morrison’s ill-judged comments risk toppling one of Australia’s top export industries into the abyss.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Move with care

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