The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many domains of human social and natural life, and a surge of interesting comments and analyses has been published in media and scholarly outlets the past few weeks. We join some of the more critical voices that it would be an illusion and also quite foolish to continue ‘business as usual’ in higher education during such a crisis. At the same time, of course, we are deeply concerned about our students’ wellbeing and learning and them passing and/or graduating in a just manner this academic year. We also stress the importance and ‘societal relevance’ of continuing our research in gender and diversity studies.
The Corona virus COVID-19 does not largely appear to discriminate on the basis of sex, yet its gendered dimensions are multifaceted. Lockdown has caused an implosion of the spaces and boundaries between the public and the private, between paid and unpaid social reproductive and care labour, at least for those among us who are privileged to have – safe and secure – homes and jobs. Worryingly, even in Europe, authoritarian states introducing crisis measures are limiting freedom and equal rights, such as the Hungarian parliament’s recent bill to end the legal recognition of transgender persons. This pandemic has also exposed a ‘crisis of care’ after decades of neo-liberalism and austerity politics driven by profit for the few above the needs of the 99%. It remains to be seen if, at worst, this will only exacerbate existing gendered, racial, socio-economic, global and other inequalities. Or, if conversely, it might open up new social imaginaries, sparked by the acts of solidarity and cultural creativity among people from all kinds of backgrounds we have been witnessing around the world.
How does this pandemic affect academia? In recent years, including in Belgium, there has been mounting debate on the work pressure within universities and many other sectors; the growing student numbers yet cut-backs in faculty and staff; increasing administrative burdens and bureaucracy and the neo-liberalization of research such as in the prioritization of competitive grant acquisition and publication output numbers over content and quality. Mental health issues and burn-outs have been on the rise among both students and staff. In the past weeks, for many, work conditions have been severely aggravated. New technologies have supported yet also put additional strains upon those involved in the sudden switch to distance learning, examinations and administration, especially when combined with fulltime childcare, schooling or other caring responsibilities at home. We are also concerned about colleagues in precarious contracts who have now been put on temporary employment, such as the cleaning staff, and students who have difficulties to make ends meet as they lost their student jobs because of the crisis. There is the separation from and concern for loved-ones (nearby or afar) and the economical, physical, mental and emotional toll of living in these radically altered conditions for all.
Concerns have been raised that, as academics, and as humanities scholars in particular, perhaps we need and should not be expected to be so ‘productive’ during a pandemic? Does lockdown also not provide for equally creative modes of deep reflection on what it means to be human? For slowing down, tending to and grounding ourselves, in relation to our immediate environment and to each other, for moving out of lineair into more cyclical space and time? Using another quote that has been circulating in the social media, No, we do not really want to return to the normal, because indeed ‘the normal wasn’t working’. Novellist Arundhati Roy describes this pandemic as a ‘portal’; a gateway between one world and the next, offering us the choice of how to walk through. We find it carries the potential to acknowledge our inherent vulnerability and mutual interdependency, for which we find inspiration in feminist and other critical theories on notions of care, connectedness, freedom and radical equality.
7 April 2020
Statement in Newsletter #3 2020 of the Centre for Research on Culture and Gender.