Reading the news has always been a somber ritual, but these days it is a singularly depressing affair. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world with no signs of abating. At this time of writing, the United States has an infection rate of one out of every 66 residents. Latin American countries have collectively recorded more than 4.7 million cases. Every corner of the African continent has reported infections. Places once thought to have bested the virus–Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia–are now struggling with new waves of cases. Economies and societies around the globe are in disarray.
While I am grateful to be safe at home, I struggle with how I–a historian in training–can be of help beyond regular donations to chosen causes. Indeed, academics in the humanities have been figuring out their role in the pandemic since it erupted. Many are frustrated by the seeming irrelevance of humanistic learning.
Eight months into the pandemic, however, the stakes of our work have become starkly evident. While the challenges we face require economic, technological and clinical knowledge, they are, at heart, moral choices. What are our civic duties in this challenging time, and how do we discharge them? How do we ethically create and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine? How do we restructure economies to be more equitable? How do we restore trust in the state, and virtue in politics? The most emotive debates of the pandemic period do not concern the virus per se. Instead, they are about socioeconomic and gender inequality, political bipartisanship, and racism and xenophobia. They are about distrust of authority and expertise, which has torn at the fragile relationship between governments and their peoples and chipped away at the foundations of democracy. The virus didn’t create these problems, but it has forced societies to look at these problems in the eye. In turn, these problems have jeopardized efforts to contain the virus, with life-and-death consequences. The virus, it seems, is winning.
There are two ways in which the humanities can make a difference. Firstly, humanists can provide, and have been providing, immediate help.“It is the humanists,” argues Mary Lindemann, president of the American Historical Association, “who understand that successfully fighting an epidemic depends not only, or even principally, on scientific knowledge, vital as it is.” Humanists serve as a correction for blind trust in science by placing the generation of scientific knowledge into their politicized contexts. They can also make policymakers more accountable for their decisions by flagging how policies may unevenly affect different sectors of society. As early as April, the German government put together a team of historians, theologians, and philosophers to ensure that reopening measures were conducted in an ethical manner.
Additionally, while not all of us understand science or geopolitics, all of us grapple, in our own ways, with how our everyday lives have been forcibly overwritten. By identifying the pandemic’s social and emotional repercussions, the arts and humanities help us regain our bearings, so that we can ride the wave with as much lucidity as possible. Quick-response literary works reflect intimate struggles with isolation, uncertainty, and death. Historians forcefully point out the deep roots of racism, particularly that directed toward Asians–attitudes which have sometimes manifested in violence.
The humanities are essential for a second reason: they are crucial for building the future. With the underbelly of societies grossly exposed, leaders–including UN Secretary General António Guterres–now recognize that social compacts need rewriting. Humanists must guide this long-term process by equipping upcoming generations with their particular ways of thinking and feeling. If fake news and conspiracy theories have derailed virus containment measures, and more generally political engagement, then humanists must teach their students how to handle information responsibly. Indeed, reading for tone, identifying logical fallacies, and questioning the reliability of sources are no longer just classroom exercises. They are essential skills for surviving an age of disinformation. If communities have frayed at the seams, humanists must teach their students empathy. As I have argued elsewhere, students who can put themselves in the shoes of historical or fictional characters will be more willing and able to see things from the perspectives of other real people in real-time. Because the pandemic’s long-term challenges have placed a premium on these analytical and emotional skills, David Garza, rector of the Monterrey Institute of Technology, predicts that universities will soon see an increased demand for arts, humanities and social sciences degrees.
The humanities offer valuable lessons, but will anyone listen? Now that we are surer of their avenues of contribution, intellectuals must overcome political fracturing to engage the public. Effective communication outside of the academy has always been difficult, but it is now more important than ever. Humanities academics should find meaningful ways to participate in public conversations–not as professed experts, but simply as members of national and global communities.
And, of course, the teaching must continue, online or otherwise. (Scholars have already crowdsourced a syllabus for teaching about the pandemic and the humanistic questions at its core.) Some months ago, just as the pandemic began to unravel, I asked a mentor what he thought academics should be doing to help. Nothing too exciting, he replied; all we could do was carry on with our work to uphold the normalcy that had suddenly become so precious. The more I reflect, the more I agree. In fact, all we can do is exactly what we must do. The pandemic has landed societies at a crossroads by forcing a fundamental rethinking of what constitutes human dignity, and which sets of ethical values best guarantee it. Societies will need humanistic methods of thinking to decide which way to go. Technical know-how will help build the road, but only after people have chosen a direction.
Jennifer Yip is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a Master of Philosophy in World History at the University of Cambridge and her B.A. in History at the National University of Singapore.