In A Time of Crisis
You might think that our present, extraordinary and challenging global circumstances might call for ‘patience, flexibility, practicality and ability to withstand misfortune’. All of those traits do indeed need to be practiced now as we, individually and collectively, try to traverse a landscape that changes every day (so far, always in a bad direction). In fact the full quote that prompts me to cite those fine characteristics is ‘The rearing of sheep calls for patience, flexibility, practicality and ability to withstand misfortune.’, a quote from The Last Wolf, a book subtitled The Hidden Springs of Englishness in which the author Robert Winder ascribes much of the Englishman’s character down to sheep-tending in the past. I found I had jotted this sentence down somewhere, because I thought it sounded like the qualities needed to complete a PhD and might form the basis of a blogpost (I still believe that would have been possible), but having stumbled upon it this week in a fit of trying to put some order into my life by a quick tidy up, it seems equally apposite now in a vastly different spirit.
However much we all wish to avoid the misfortune referred to above so we don’t have to withstand it, we can see that the likelihood of gaining far more intimate acquaintance with it than we want is growing all the time. Many comparisons have been made to the much-vaunted if inaccurately viewed ‘spirit of the blitz’, but I must under no circumstances think – as Master of Churchill College – I need to quote Sir Winston at the drop of a hat. Nevertheless I, like probably all the other heads of Cambridge Colleges, am feeling I need mental resources and decision-making skills for which my previous career has not really trained me. But then, that will be equally true of our politicians; very few within the population will have had to deal with anything remotely similar to this crisis, let alone on this scale.
For our students, as for students and school children everywhere, uncertainty and anxiety are rife. Of course. The leadership here, at the centre of the university and in every college, is well aware of this and wish we could make their path smooth. We will all be thinking about how to set fair assessments under the current crisis conditions. I cannot see, personally, we can just wait until the students eventually come back, or cancel the whole year and start again, attractive though that may seem to them: there will be another year of students coming along who equally need to be treated fairly. The challenges for those making decisions about these hugely important matters are enormous, but our first actions have been directed to ensure students’ and staff safety. Our ongoing responsibilities will be to do what we can to ensure the mental well-being of our students, as well as provide continuing educational resources. And, for those who have been unable to leave Cambridge for whatever reason, a safe and supportive environment.
Staff – in whatever kind of job from professor to housekeeper, from admin to catering – are likely to be older than the students, and all the evidence is that that puts them immediately into a higher risk category. Some will have small children to care for, others are responsible for elderly parents; some may have serious underlying health issues themselves or be living with someone who does. We have to recognize that many of the staff will need to go into self-isolation, even if they don’t fall seriously ill. Our resources (leave aside finances) will be severely depleted, possibly for a very long time, but we will continue to support all those students who remain here in college accommodation as best we can.
Trying to make decisions in this fast-changing world is tricky. What seems right under government guidelines one day, may become wrong because superseded by the next day’s diktat. As the leadership team in the college was discussing our next steps last Friday, we realised that the PMs statement had just shifted the ground again. Maybe on Monday we need to fix our final ‘meeting’ of the day (virtual of course) later, so that we can keep track of the next set of advice given in the daily press conference and incorporate it into our decisions.
Last week was a crash course in new technologies – the university rolled out MS Teams faster than planned; the College was already on the case. It had previously been loaded on my computer, but I’d only had occasion to trial it just once, the week before (for an external meeting). There remains much I, for one, don’t understand about it. Still, even at the basic level I can use it; it works for the current purpose. We will all learn experientially.
Nationally (if not globally) we will have to see how the internet copes with everyone relying so heavily on this infrastructure to communicate with work or loved ones. We are, in this sense at least, a lucky generation because we have the possibility of keeping in touch, even visually, across continents. You only have to read Victorian novels to know the difference the telegram made to their communications. But what is a telegram – probably only sent in some official capacity anyhow, possibly referring to death – compared with beaming up a face on WhatsApp or Skype (insert alternative technology of your choice), even when that face is on the other side of the world? At least, if we are in lockdown, we have many ways to keep in touch rather than having to rely on a letter which would take 3-6 months to arrive, if it did at all.
The loneliness of lockdown or isolation will be at least partially mitigated by such means, but nevertheless for many, mental health as much as physical will be a concern. Or, alternatively, in a family the close confinement with difficult others, even if they are dear, may also cause enormous stress. As someone said to me, only half-joking, the murder and suicide rates may soar. This pandemic will cause upheaval for everyone, and possibly far worse.
Individually we each have a responsibility to follow the guidelines. The predictions if we don’t are even more catastrophic than the terrifying trajectory we already seem to be set on. (Watch this animation if you don’t yet believe this simple fact.) But, in the UK at least, we are not yet collectively confined behind our front doors. It is spring. For our mental well-being getting out and ‘smelling the roses’, or at least observing the appearance of buds and blossom, should form part of our daily routine. In Cambridge the daffodils are probably already past their peak, some magnolias and primroses are out, the hedges are greening. It is good to notice and enjoy these things when otherwise the world feels so out of kilter and scary. I will be doing my best to derive pleasure and strength where I can.
But above all now we need to remember we are part of a global community in trouble. Be kind, be thoughtful, look out for others when you can (safely) do so. Part of doing that lies in obeying the guidelines and mandates as they unfold, however unpleasant and difficult. And keep yourself safe.