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COVID-19: Is the university up to the task?

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Universities across North America are taking unprecedented measures to respond to the health crisis sparked by COVID-19. Courses have been shifted to online teaching, and students, faculty and staff are being asked to work from home and socially distance or self-isolate themselves as much as possible. As examples from around the world demonstrate, these measures are now vital to containing the spread of the pandemic.

Yet beyond the anxiety created for all sectors employed and served by the university, the preeminent site of knowledge production, this crisis reveals again how unreliable and unprepared key institutions remain in the face of potentially unmitigated -- but foreseeable -- disaster, whether in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic; the environmental crisis; the catastrophic violence unleashed on populations in war zones; the migration flows of those fleeing conflicts; and the everyday deepening economic and social divides within even the richest and most privileged societies in the world.

As the university implements the COVID-19 measures, now extending to clearing campus residences of students and allowing international students to return early to their homes, there is a far deeper problem that the institution has yet to take into account. This is its failure to produce resilient communities with the knowledge and ability to stand up to the corruption and manipulations of the profit driven mindset that even now informs the responses to the pandemic. Recent history demonstrates how short term political-economic calculus trumps collective wellbeing each time during moments of crisis. Will this one be any different once the dust settles on the pandemic?

Even before the Trump administration's designation of COVID-19 as a "foreign virus," racism towards Asian and other "immigrant" communities had escalated sharply not only in the U.S. but also in Canada. The difficulties public officials are now encountering in convincing many members of mainstream communities to adhere to the self-isolation and social-distancing measures being implemented cannot be understood outside the context of the widespread popular belief that the virus remains a "foreign" one. Shutting down borders to international travellers without confronting this racism only allows it, like the virus, to fester and spread. Universities have thus far not only failed to protect their students, staff and faculty from such racism, they have utterly failed in educating the communities in which they function about the devastating effects of the racial divides that remain embedded in the political and institutional infrastructure -- governed by elites whose main concerns are profitability and holding onto power, indeed, even increasing these during such moments of global crisis. 

Closing off borders to delineate insiders who matter and outsiders who can be sacrificed has long been the measure of first resort to dealing with crises. Insiders are thus treated as the "deserving" vulnerable even as the societies they collectively devastate through the extractive and tourism industries, the wars on terror and consumerist lifestyles, the economic sanctions and racial profiling, are condemned to greater misery and suffering.

It should be remembered that Western elites used the civilizational discourse and Islamophobia following the attacks of 9/11 to create a moral panic that restructured the global economy and plunged the Middle East, Africa and Asia into a devastating cycle of violence which continues to rage on. The destruction of states and societies in these regions, and the propping up of corrupt, authoritarian and murderous leaders, is the price these western elites are willing to pay for such restructuring.   

Surveillance technologies introduced in the global war to facilitate this restructuring were embraced by the university as enthusiastically as the uncritical use of social media, both hailed as absolutely essential to the protection of Western populations. The consequences of such acceptance are now evident in the rise of white-supremacist movements -- which proved themselves incredibly adept at online dissemination of racist ideologies and xenophobic fear-mongering -- that have shifted mainstream politics to pander to racist and anti-immigrant practices. Stoking anti-immigrant fears is how publics are now being mobilized for the racial socio-economic restructuring of western societies. Twenty years hence, the university has utterly failed to educate populations about the consequences -- political, economic as well as social -- of such maniacal approaches to global governance, notwithstanding their endorsement by financial, economic, military and educational institutions.  

Can the university do better in the COVID-19 pandemic, which is likewise already being used to restructure the political landscape, not to mention education, international travel, public policy, health-care provision, the treatment of the workforce, etc.? Past experience hardly leaves room for optimism, but if enough of us dare to point to the elephant in the room ... 

Sunera Thobani is a professor in the department of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. She is working on an edited collection on coloniality and racial injustice in the university.

Image: NIAID/Flickr

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