Entering another year already ‘disrupted’ by the pandemic has again tested our collective endurance: how do we face another year of COVID-19; how do we maintain a sense of positivity amidst such extended readjustments to our lives; and, quite frankly—will this pandemic ever end?
While history tells us we will survive, the pandemic will end, life will go on—the combination of sustained fatigue and overwhelm from the changes the pandemic has wrought (never have we heard the term ‘unprecedented’ more than in the past two years) has left many, understandably, grappling with a sense of pessimism about the state of the world. While Love Actually may suggest we look to the arrivals gate at Heathrow for a dose of optimism, extending well beyond this, it would be beneficial to focus on opportunities for positive, meaningful, and long-lasting change—for they do exist—that may emerge from this sustained pandemic experience. In the wise words of eminent Psychologist, Dr Lisa Damour, which resonate strongly at this time: ‘the presence of the negative doesn’t mean the absence of the positive’.
We are years, decades away from truly understanding the enduring effects of COVID-19, which continue to emerge and evolve. Of course, there are negative outcomes and much to grieve—lives lost, milestones missed, separation from loved ones—and the experience of sheer physical and mental exhaustion. And yet, positivity too pervades at all levels. We can still emerge from this pandemic—whenever that may be—having created meaningful societal change. If we can genuinely turn our attention from the immediate to the longer term, real opportunities for positive change exist.
- Sustainability—on a societal level, we see the benefits of less time commuting, and in offices. Globally, air pollution has fallen by 20 per cent, while greenhouse gas emissions have reduced by 50 per cent according to NASA. However, our use of face masks and one-time-use personal protective equipment has increased, substantially contributing to pollution and posing a threat to wildlife. Late last year, COP26 brought together 120 world leaders to discuss all these facets of climate change—with an agreement to accelerate action. The realities of the pandemic have given educators a tangible experience to share with students to demonstrate our impact on the environment. The question is, might this experience inspire greater action?
- Generation-defining disruption—from an educational standpoint, emerging research on the impacts of the pandemic on the youngest in our society suggests the impact of sustained remote learning has exacerbated socio-economic disparities and contributed to significant losses in learning—which has the potential to damage not only the lives of individuals, but countries in the short and long-term due to skilled labour shortages. As educators, parents, and a community how can we bring our children out of this pandemic without trying to do the impossible: give them back the years they have lost? How do we nurture their wellbeing—educationally, socially and emotionally—building upon the strength and resilience they have gained?
- ‘The great resignation’—since late 2021, warnings of dramatic increases in resignations in Australia has been forecast following similar trends overseas. While the corporate world perhaps initially attributed this movement to a desire for greater employee flexibility, what seems to have eventuated is in fact sustained, and extreme, exhaustion. Is this exhaustion the result solely of the pandemic, or has the pandemic simply brought this issue to light? The New York Times reported earlier this month that healthcare workers in the USA are resigning due, in part, to hospitals choosing not to staff adequately. Entire nations shut down in March 2020 in response to COVID-19, determined to protect their populations from this virus. Three years later, an opportunity exists to genuinely reconfigure corporate systems to ensure the sustainability of our workforces—not through token benefits, but through meaningful, systematic shifts in how we prioritise the genuine incorporation of work into our lives, rather than a work/life balance. As educators, we can prepare our students for a future in which the ability to work and live a full life are not mutually exclusive, but in fact, an expectation.
To emerge from COVID—and emerge we will—without putting into practice the opportunities for positive change, at an individual but also importantly, a societal level, would deny us a truly remarkable opportunity to effect meaningful, generational change. As with every major world event in history—wars, pandemics, natural disasters—we have a responsibility to use this experience to shape a better future for us all. As educators, we know that our role—to prepare those in our care to contribute meaningfully to a more just world—is essential to achieving this goal. The question is, what kind of world do we want them to enter?
Ms Jacinda Euler