The upsides to a pandemic: from jobs to teaching, it’s not all ...

Ideas

The upsides to a pandemic: from jobs to teaching, it’s not all bad news

A climate boost, new work opportunities, an uptick in innovation, rethinking how we learn – there are many positives

Columnist
Education departments are now using all kinds of online learning tools to enable children to learn from home.
Virtually the same Education departments are now using all kinds of online learning tools to enable children to learn from home.
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

My Afrikaans subject teacher had a weird way of explaining obscure sayings like Die een se dood is die ander se brood. What this means, she said with only the hint of a smile, is that as long as people keep dying, the funeral undertaker can make a living. If you woke up on April Fool’s day earlier this week, you would have realised that the data from our National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) is no joke: 41,072 tests conducted, 1,353 persons testing positive for coronavirus, and five dead. There is, however, an upside to this horrible disease called Covid-19. Someone is making a living and lots of positives have emerged from the pandemic. So, change your goggles and think about this.

The coronavirus pandemic has already led to a significant drop in air pollution because of the slowdown in industrial activity and the fact that there are fewer cars on the road. The planet-heating gas carbon monoxide (CO2) has fallen by 50% in some countries compared with 2019, and that other pollutant, nitrogen oxide, has also come down dramatically in places like northern Italy. It appears that an invisible virus might change our behaviour in relation to that other life-threatening event, climate change.

Yes, many jobs have been lost or “furloughed” with this pandemic, especially in the service industries like airline travel and restaurants. But think of the many new jobs that have opened up. Amazon has a demand for more than 100,000 workers as a result of this crisis. Zoom, a teleconferencing company, is advertising for jobs as is Slack, a messaging platform used by corporates. Thousands of health care workers have been called out of retirement in hard-hit places to manage the large numbers of infected patients coming through the hospital doors. Sales in health care equipment have spiked and somebody is making a killing (sorry, wrong word) from masks, ventilators and protective gear, which is still being produced at a rate too slow to keep up with demand in hot spot areas.

The pandemic has spawned innovation in health and education. New kinds of ventilators have been produced that allow patients to care for themselves, thereby releasing critical health care workers to help other patients. A snood-type mask has been produced which apparently kills more than 95% of viruses. And then there is the hands-free door handle that attaches to the existing door handle with a crook so that you do not have “infect” your hands after sanitising it. Somebody is making a lot of bread out of this crisis. 

Nowhere is innovation flourishing more rapidly than in education where the closing down of schools in response to the coronavirus now keeps more than 500 million children at home worldwide.

Nowhere is innovation flourishing more rapidly than in education where the closing down of schools in response to the coronavirus now keeps more than 500 million children at home worldwide. Education departments are now using all kinds of online learning tools to enable children to learn from home. True, the digital divide means that online opportunities favour the middle classes, but then again some developing countries have been forced to think of preparing curriculum packages that can be home delivered, or contracting public television channels to begin delivering teaching using the one technology more widely available in poorer communities. In the process, another problem is being solved: parents are now being forced to engage their children in learning as they share lockdown spaces (nobody’s going anywhere soon). It is hard to realise – as one comedian put it – parents are beginning to realise that the teacher is not problem. The smart money is on innovators who make investments in on- and offline learning that can be switched on seamlessly when future calamities (there will be more pandemics) shut down schools and universities.

One of the most gratifying upsides to the pandemic crisis has been the surge in volunteerism at all levels. One student at UCT has established a volunteer service called Cape Town Against Corona. This service brings groceries and medicines to the homes of elderly citizens who are immobilised and/or at high risk of infection. When the UK’s health secretary called on 250,000 people in England to help support their National Health Service, more than 500,000 volunteers signed up. Then there is the moving story of more than 100 health sciences students who volunteered at the Disaster Management Centre of one of our hospitals.

It is hard to know how exactly communities will reset once this pandemic is behind us. One can only hope that a collective consciousness about climate change will be realised, that advanced planning for future pandemics will be institutionalised, that online design solutions for the education of all children will be routinised, and that the spirit of volunteerism will be normalised throughout our resilient country.