We have so often found ourselves the ironic dupes of COVID-19 that I am reluctant to write anything that might invite a further humbling of the species. So, if I take this opportunity to reflect on the pandemic and its impact on the people of Queen’s University, virus stand down: I am in no way presuming that we are finished with COVID-19.
But it has been more than two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic, two years since universities everywhere achieved the hitherto unimaginable goal of taking their entire educational operation online, and two years since faculty and staff – with the exception of essential workers – began working from home. After so long, and thanks to our remarkable ability to normalize the abnormal, it is easy to miss the magnitude of what has happened to the world during that time. And by extension it is just as easy to underestimate the human costs and the challenges of the recovery which is just beginning. As restrictions are being lifted and we slowly emerge from this peculiar hibernation, it is important to reflect on the risks that attend this moment – even as we acknowledge this may not, in fact, be the end of anything.
At Queen’s our habit has been to mourn the loss of human contact that came with COVID-19, in particular the rich extra- and co-curricular life that has historically defined undergraduate life at our university. We have been deeply moved by the situation of students whose entire first year was spent online, and whose return to in-person study occurred without full enjoyment of the community-building practices, ceremonies and traditions that have led students in the past to build a lifelong connection with their alma mater. As restrictions are steadily lifted, we will do everything we can to foster that spirit, but I suspect that in the years to come our graduates will find themselves connected in part at least by the shared loss of innocence that the pandemic brought to their lives, their awareness of how precarious are our hopes, ambitions, and assumptions – especially in the context of global and environmental threats.
I would hope that this chastened sense of possibility, arising paradoxically out of the limitation of ordinary human interaction, will have given our students a deepened sense of empathy and fellow feeling, a more profound understanding of the complexities and responsibilities of being human. There is nothing to celebrate when a global tragedy thrusts young people prematurely into adulthood, but it would only deepen the tragedy if no learning were to come from that experience. At about the time COVID-19 appeared we were beginning a university-wide discussion of our reason for being, of the various ways our university can increase its impact in the world; and the commitment that has emerged – to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and to addressing the world’s great challenges – has been honed and strengthened by the lessons of the pandemic.
There is one lesson that may not be heeded in our rush to reassert “normality,” in our determination to give students as soon as possible that rich in-person campus life that for many defines us. That is the need to understand that for the entire Queen’s community the continuing stresses and anxieties of COVID-19, as well as the fear of change – even change in a more positive direction – will be significant, and will demand from us all a high degree of empathy, resilience, and intellectual courage. In those things we will find the real meaning of community and of human contact, and will be able to resume our mission properly and more profoundly “in person.”