In this piece, Tahmena Bokhari, EDI Director for the Smith School of Business, imagines a future where forever changed communities are filled with more compassion, empathy and humility
This winter break, as Omicron was taking hold over Kingston, Ontario, I reflected back to the early days prior to the pandemic being officially declared and all that has happened since then. Back in January of 2020, when we were first learning of this virus, I was in Toronto just beginning to learn about the impact of the virus on staff and working with leaders to formulate some messaging. A staff was planning a trip to China and worried she may be getting backlash from colleagues. As weeks went on, local GTA Chinese business owners were discussing the impact to their local customers and communities. As the pandemic was officially declared and as lockdowns were being implemented, we collectively became science students learning about molecular structures of Covid-19. Members of Indigenous and Black communities began talking about their fears as minoritized persons, mistrust of healthcare systems and government mandated vaccines. South Asian families in areas like Peel Region were talking about concerns of living in multigenerational households as well as fears of the health of family members in their countries of origin. Employees with disabilities who were suddenly having to work from home and were not provided adequate accessible supports felt that we lost accessibility gains made in the workplace. Many equity-deserving communities started voicing concerns about struggles being compounded due to isolation and job precariousness for members of equity-deserving groups, particularly newcomers. Certainly, we have seen inequitable vaccine access globally.
Back then, on a personal note, I had no idea that today I would be sitting in my new home in Kingston writing this piece. During this past year, I accepted an offer to lead the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion initiative. I also had no idea the monumental leaps this pandemic would see for anti-racism, anti-Black racism, and anti-Indigenous racism and decolonization. The murder of George Floyd, the uncovering of mass graves of Indigenous children in residential schools, and the killing of a Muslim family merely going for a walk, in London, Ontario — all shook the country to the core. People came together in historic ways to march, protest and show solidarity. As an EDI leader, I have personally and professionally been transformed, in ways that I am still processing. I do not want us to lose what we have gained.
As I imagine a future with us having moved through this pandemic, I envision people and communities forever changed with more compassion, empathy and humility. Life, as we have been harshly reminded, is so very fragile, even for those who may appear to be healthy and in their prime years of life. As Ontarians, who are so privileged to have the healthcare we do, it was a wake-up call that our systems are not fail-proof and have limits. It is a reckoning with life as we know it! It is an opportunity to question how we have been doing things, what we prioritize, how we can work together for the betterment of all, and how we can shift our systems to be more efficient, agile and equitable. Ultimately, it is an opportunity to reconsider our values. I ask the question, “What side of history do you want to be on and remembered for by your grandchildren and great-grandchildren?” Just as students in grade school today are learning about residential schools, thanks to the Truth & Reconciliation recommendations on education, future generations will be reading about this pandemic and all that changed as a result. Will they be reading that this was a major turning point and that finally systemic and institutionalized forms of inequity were being taken seriously with action and results? I will leave you with this question.