The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world. Educational institutions came to a standstill - face-to-face interaction, campus sociality, public lectures—a large part of academic life ceased to exist.
Sociology, which is about human social relationships, can approach complex societal problems by mixing historical, theoretical, and contemporary knowledge with critical methodologies. In the past two years, it has been about delivering modes of critical thinking in the best and most accessible way possible.
A way to discuss the present pandemic has been through debates that students had learned theoretically. What kind of sociality does social distance entail, etiquettes, symbols, and rituals of the new normal? The socio-economic impact of the pandemic, how different communities are coping with the current crisis, and the implications of ‘vaccine wars.’ Based on race, class, and geographical divides, it was a challenge for specific communities to follow the strict guidelines of lockdown living in cramped and temporary arrangements.
Through online discussions and forums, instructors probed many complex issues factoring students’ perspectives of the situation. In my social theory teaching, a productive way to talk about the pandemic was through the literature of the Anthropocene - ideas and discussions prompted by the human impact on the Earth’s ecosystem. COVID-19 was in the middle of debates on global warming, habitat loss, industrial farming, and zoonotic diseases. How does one identify the different pieces of the pandemic to avoid its recurrence in the future? The magnitude of each one’s experience provided fertile space for speculative thinking—particularly for students reflected on capitalism and its links to consumerism and waste.
Right now, people are getting vaccinated, and we are witnessing a drop in mortality rates. In the coming times, teaching sociology will be challenging and exciting at the same time. The forefront of discussions will critically investigate the crisis, links to societal structures, and inequalities, considering the new needs of students coming out of a tough year. Sociology provides tools for students to think about the future creatively. Such emphasis comes from concepts, methodological rigour, and being aware of diverse empirical realities.
Continuing a sense of community will be helped by the different centres at our department where experts regularly speak on current issues. Apart from the Centre for Criminology, Centre for Intimate and Sexual Citizenship, and the Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation, we are also now developing a Centre for Global South Studies. The new centre will give a platform to develop the complexities of living in an interconnected world, particularly incorporating debates and ‘controversies’ emerging from the Global South, including Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.
The first half of the twentieth century saw another big pandemic, the Spanish flu, with many lives lost worldwide. But what was unique about the COVID-19 pandemic was the immediacy of news arriving from different parts of the world through print and social media. One was living both a local context and a global one; each of us has friends and relatives in different contexts, and even as strangers across the world, we came together in our crisis. The transnational networks of people and goods connected food, clothing, and medicines between the Global South and North. Living in a pandemic is to be aware of the interdependencies between human, non-human actors, and geographical regions to move forward with caution without reproducing old hierarchies, which has brought us to this stage in the first place.
The author is Maitrayee Deka, Department of Sociology, University of Essex.
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