Preparing for the day after COVID: notes from a short talk by Adil Najam

Event invite sent on my personal email. Najam sb advertised the talk on Twitter. There were roughly 110 participants in the discussion hosted on zoom.

Based on his experience & analysis about the novel coronavirus so far, Najam sb speaks on the magnitude of disruption & rehabilitation effort, rethinking human & global security, role of poorer nations like Pakistan, changes in higher education & dealing with anxiety. I missed the first 10 minutes of this roughly 50 minute session. Following excerpts are mostly from the Q&A. Although I have quoted him as accurately as I could please treat the following content as a paraphrasing. If you want to quote Najam sb publicly from this post, I suggest you drop a line to Aga Khan University requesting permission to do so.

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Given the scale of disruption related to the novel coronavirus experts that I know agree that the recession will not be of the usual kind. 

The closest example that comes to our mind is that it will be like the Post-war reconstruction, i.e. after the Great Wars.

That’s the bad thing.

Good thing is that you now have time to think.

Think about how I can make that big change (that is required)?

Social changes are the most uncertain. How work will happen, how our communications will happen, how education will change etc.

How society will think about its understanding of security?

We will have to rethink security. If security for us is important than what is it that makes us insecure?

For instance, front line work has become dangerous for medical staff. Nature of (security related) work is changing.

We find ourselves unprepared for calamities like health emergencies for instance. Why was that?

Human arrogance is a big issue.

But right now we have time where billions of people are introspecting. 

This is not just about health. After this we have the issue of climate change. We were already aware of these problems before but now we are forced to act. 

I don’t believe in conspiracies when truth is already so strange.

Governments versus people

This virus won’t be beaten by government action. It will be beaten by personal action. 

This is a test for people. Not governments.

The crisis is not just that we don’t know much about the virus itself. The crisis we are facing everywhere is the crises of the health system. Don’t have enough beds, enough trained people, field camps are coming up, stadiums are being transformed. This is a rethinking of security.

But we are far prepared to kill each other than save each other. 

Why is it that when someone dies because of enemy is declared a martyr/patriot but when someone dies due to drinking dirty water it is not as important? I’m not saying taking a bullet for your country is not important. But it makes you wonder. This doesn’t mean making defense less important but making health security more important. We must think this very seriously. 

Will there be a World War III ?

With the technology of destruction available to us my hope is that we would not need bullets to fly. 

Some experts believe that we may be already living in a third world war, or even fourth or a fifth. That the third war already happened somewhere around the Cold War era. 

Have you noticed that in the last few months we have been talking about availability of mask, instead of oil? Our conception of what is valuable is changing. It may be that nations with food stores, medical doctors (which Pakistan has many), will become important. 

Regarding IMF & poor nations like Pakistan

Imran Khan (IK) statement requesting aid is very understandable. It should have come earlier. There is a major IMF meeting happening next week. I’m convinced there will be debt relief. IK is being polite, but poor nations should be asking more because the scale of crisis is so huge that even aid won’t be enough. 

Now what will happen with Chinese Aid, I don’t know. 

But we need to decide what kind of work matters, what relationships matter. Basically, what are our priorities.

Is there a power shift from West to Asia? & what is the role for Pakistan?

Shift was already happening. Rise of Great Power China & the reaction of US was already happening. COVID 19 has just put this shift on high momentum.

Pakistan should chart an ‘even’ ‘even’ course. We should keep out of it. There are those who are still advocating playing this game but we should not become a playground for Great Powers. We must make ourselves economically, socially, politically stronger when Great Powers are in transitions. When you are not a Great Power yourself and play these games, you become fodder. There is a saying in Africa that when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. 

Impact on higher education

It’s clear that big changes are around the corner.

In education there will be difficulties in the short term. Value of higher education will increase. 

Nearly certainly classes will go hybrid. 

An army of professors in US are findings new ways to teach. Many are using online classes for the first time and have realized that it works. On the other end, students are becoming more open to online learning. 

In the US another issue is what subjects people will want to learn?

The corona generation will create a new kind of intellectual environment. For those set to join higher education in their lives now things are about to change completely. These people maybe even more important than generation before or even after this period. 

Older generation of professors like me will not be in the forefront because our minds are wired in a previous era.

Dealing w/ anxiety

With all that is happening every day. There is not a night in the last month where I didn’t go to bed with at least these two thoughts; 1- how small my problems are in comparison to other people problems, that student of mine that is cramped in a two room apartment that now has to be converted into a class room, those students who may have contracted COVID, those who have lost loved one; 2- gratitude, a sense of how lucky I am. That there is someone standing at the grocery store who will serve me rice, or at the hospital who will treat me when I’m sick. 

Because I’m so lucky I owe it to everyone to be a more responsible person

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