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Learning to live with the COVID-19 pandemic

Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC, 2019

Countries affected by COVID-19 are gradually lifting confinement restrictions that were introduced to contain and mitigate the spread of the pandemic. We are slowly, but surely, limping back to normalcy. Although it is too early to declare a victory against COVID-19, the spread of the virus is abating in many countries. But if we drop our guard, it is likely that the virus will regain a foothold in the weeks to come. Vigilance and patience will be needed in these pressing times.

Over the past three months we have been put to the test, not only from a social, economic and psychological standpoint, but also from a work-related perspective. The sudden switch to digital workspaces and remote-work resources has caught most employers off-guard. Employees are no longer required to be physically present at the office. Visits from high-level delegations are a distant dream as formal meetings are replaced by Zoom and Skype videoconference calls. Offices remain empty and one is unable to meet colleagues over lunch or a cup of coffee.

But as the saying goes: Every crisis is an opportunity. The experience was a wake-up call that allowed societies to pose existential questions rather than just accepting “business as usual.” Many have rediscovered spirituality, the central importance of the family, the necessity of international solidarity. Indeed, we do not have to return to “normalcy” with its focus on materialism, consumerism and the “rat-race.” We should attempt to correct certain inequities and dysfunctions of globalization and demand from our governments a new social contract, an ethical approach to business, better budget priorities to ensure preparedness to tackle any future crisis, whether an asteroid impact or the eruption of a super-volcano. At the same time we recognize that confinement and lockdowns have not been entirely in vain and brought about changes that will remain. Surely the digitalization of our workspaces will not backtrack. The toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube. The genie is out of the bottle, and we should recognize the positive potential of this technology. We have learned to adapt to crises settings by improvising and devising innovative solutions through the use of technology.

I have recently been in a similar situation. I just returned from Djibouti in east Africa where I stayed for one month in relation to the holding of a major international conference on education. But the COVID-19 pandemic put an immediate halt for any working visits outside Europe in the foreseeable future. To avoid a setback in the fulfilment of professional obligations, the switch to a digital workspace proved to be the ultimate high ground, in a sea of uncertainty, to resume work, maintain the momentum achieved over past months, and most importantly, move ahead with our activities. Without access to technology, we would have been stuck in a quagmire with little prospect of success.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly disrupted our lives, the new rules of engagement have offered new opportunities to establish digital workflows and build digital communities. From anywhere in the world, the work-space environment, normally bound by a traditional office, no longer recognizes geographical distances and works seamlessly. The post-COVID 2.0 digital workspace offers greater flexibility and freedom to adapt to modern-day work challenges. In a couple of seconds, colleagues from all over the world can participate in meetings without having to fly long distances to be physically present. The ability to virtually e-meet colleagues compensates, to a limited extent though, the need for personal communication and day-to-day contact.

COVID has also revealed the relevance of religion as part of our identity. As this year’s Easter and the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan have nearly occurred simultaneously, the pandemic has adversely affected the ability of Christians and Muslims alike to maintain their traditional religious observances. The images of empty churches and church leaders praying to vacant pews illustrate the obstacles to bringing congregations together. The daunting images of an empty Mecca Grand Mosque and Kabaa likewise indicate that this year’s Ramadan festivities may be celebrated in isolation. Yet, the message of universal brotherhood inspires us to solidarity. Indeed, our common teachings enrich our spirits with hope and optimism. With God’s help we can build a gentler, more equitable world.

Mr Blerim Mustafa, a Norwegian national, serves as a public relations specialist with the Education Relief Foundation (ERF). Before joining ERF, he worked for the likes of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a former UN Special Rapporteur, the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue, Leidar, Presheva Jone and Verdens Gang (VG). Among his academic credentials, Mr Mustafa is currently a post-graduate researcher at the University of Leicester’s (UK) Department of Politics and International Relations where he is completing his Ph.D.