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Of Pandemics and Academics: Opportunities Seized, or Opportunities Missed

Ooi Keat Gin

Confronted by the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, our day-to-day existence necessitated in embracing a so-called “new normal” with mandatory usage of face mask and adherence to social distancing in public places. Prevention, after all, is better than cure. Nonetheless, pandemics, and in equal measure, all other things, will eventually come to pass. This essay presents a historical overview of past pandemics to illustrate their transitory character. Fruitful lessons and/or good practices drawn from notable pandemics are highlighted. Though the current COVID-19 pandemic is but a fleeting phenomenon, its economic and social impact is vast. The final part relates the current pandemic’s bearing on serving academics in colleges and universities.

Pandemics in History

The relationship between mankind and diseases is as old as humankind and sex, predating agriculture and urban civilization. Pandemic of a disease means that this contagious disease is widespread over a whole country, an entire region (say, Eastern Europe), or across the world.

An overview of deadly pandemics shall suffice to show the effects and impacts of infectious diseases on mankind’s historical development, and their characteristic short-lived tenure. Table 1 shows the major devastating pandemics in history, from the Antonine Plague (165–180 CE) to COVID-19 (2019–present). Fatalities ranged from hundreds to approximately 50 million. Apart from HIV/AIDS and MERS, other infectious disease pandemics’ life span did not exceed 3–4 years. Therefore, the current COVID-19 that began in 2019 and declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March 2020, will hopefully pass within the next six months to a year.

Table 1: Major deadly pandemics in history.

NameDuration / Geographical coverageType / Pre-human hostDeath toll (estimate)
Antonine Plague, or Plague of Galen165–180 CE /
Seleucia (Mesopotamia), Roman Empire
Likely smallpox or measles5 million
Japanese smallpox epidemic735–737 CE / JapanVariola major virus1 million
Plague of Justinian541–750 CE /
Mediterranean Basin, Europe, West Asia
Bubonic plague; Yersina pestis bacteria / rats, fleas30–50 million
Black Death1347–1351 / worldwide from East Asia to EuropeBubonic plague; Yersina pestis bacteria / rats, fleas200 million
New World Smallpox OutbreakFrom 1520 / North AmericaVariola major virus56 million
Italian Plague1629–1631 / ItalyBubonic plague; Yersina pestis bacteria / rats, fleas1 million
Great Plague of London1665 / LondonBubonic plague; Yersina pestis bacteria / rats, fleas100,000
Cholera Pandemics 1-7First, 1817–1824 / S Asia to SE Asia, W Asia, Europe, E Africa; Second, 1829–1837 / N America, Europe; Third, 1846–1860 / N Africa, S America; Fourth, 1863–1875 / S Asia, S Europe; Fifth, 1881–1896 / S Asia to Europe, W Asia, S America; Sixth, 1899–1923 / W Asia, S Asia, SE Asia, Germany, Naples; Seventh, 1961–1975 / IndonesiaV. cholera bacteriaMore than 1 million
Third Plague1885 / China, IndiaBubonic plague; Yersina pestis bacteria / rats, fleas12 million
Yellow FeverFrom late 19th century / tropical and subtropical of S America, AfricaVirus / mosquitos (Aedes aegypti)100,000–150,000
Asiatic or Russian Flu1889–1890 / Russian EmpireLikely to be H2H2 (avian origin)1 million
Spanish Flu or 1918 flu pandemic1918-1919 / US (Kansas, New York City), France (Brest), Germany, UKH1H1 virus / pigs40–50 million
Asian Flu1957–1958 / E AsiaH2H2 virus1.1 million
Hong Kong Flu1968–1970 / Hong KongH3N2 virus1 million
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) / AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)1981–present / worldwideVirus / chimpanzees25–35 million
Swine Flu2009–2010 / worldwideH1H1 virus / pigs200,000
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)2002–2003 / China, SE AsiaCoronavirus / bats, civets770
West African Ebola virus epidemic2013–2016 / W AfricaEbolavirus / wild animals11,323
MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus)2015–present / W AsiaCoronavirus / bats, camels850
COVID-192019–present / worldwideCoronavirus652,000
Sources: LePan (2020); Stathakopoulos (2018); Arrizabalaga (2010); Floor (2018); Hayes (2005); McNeil (2001); Center for Disease Con (CDC) (2020); Aberth (2011)

Past global pandemic experiences revealed the price mankind paid for moving and advancing forward progressively. “The more civilized humans become—with larger cities, more exotic trade routes, and increased contact with different populations of people, animals, and ecosystems—the more likely pandemics would occur” (LePan 2020, emphasis added). A globalised world characterised by overcrowdedness in urban settings where interconnectedness between peoples, and humans and animals co-existing in proximity provides fertile environments for the spread of infectious diseases. It is not intended to belittle, or disregard, the virulent nature of particular infectious diseases that directly impact the trajectory and duration of a pandemic. The improvements made in medical science, in particular, in the better understanding of the causal factors of diseases helped facilitate the advancements in response to and mitigation of pandemics. Lessons learnt from HIV/AIDS, SARS and MERS contributed to the combating of COVID-19.

SARS demonstrated how quickly and comprehensively a virus could spread around the world in the era of air transportation, and the role of individual “superspreaders.” … the importance of the inextricable link between human, animal and environmental health … that may facilitate the crossover of germs between species. [And a] lesson from SARS is the need for sustained investment in vaccine and infectious disease treatment research (Griffin and Denholm 2020).

Quarantine—from the Venetian word quarantena or 40 days under quarters—as a concept was implemented as a practice of isolation, which, to some extent, arrested the spread of the bubonic plague (“Black Death”) of the fourteenth century that wiped out an estimated 200 million people across Asia, Europe, and northern Africa (Mayer 2018). Enforced quarantine in public facilities, or home self-isolation, proved to be an effective preventive practice in arresting the further spread of infectious diseases.

The horrendous death toll brought by the “Black Death” resulted in positive and advantageous developments within European society and its economy (Mark 2020; Cantor 2015). Due to the large number of fatalities, there was an acute shortage of labour in the feudal economy resulting in higher wages, cheaper lands, lower rents, and an overall improvement in living conditions. That the “Black Death” could devastate entire communities where neither kings, nobles nor the church could counter or provide a panacea, societal traditions, political structures and religious orthodoxy began to be questioned. Loyalty and faith began to crumble. This changing mindset created a fertile environment for the seeds of the Renaissance to nurture and blossom in the centuries thereafter.

The Spanish Flu (1918–1919) that infected some 500 million people, one-third of mankind, and killed 50 million, was one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history (Johnson and Mueller 2002). The medical and scientific knowledge then attributed influenza infection to a bacterium (Haemophilus influenza), and was utterly clueless in combating a virus. Nevertheless, authorities turned to public health measures drawn from controlling infectious diseases (cholera, tuberculosis), though they were preventive rather than curative (Center for Disease Control [CDC] 2020). Quarantine, including maritime quarantine and preventive measures—disallowing mass gatherings, enforcing physical distancing and the mandatory usage of face mask in public places, and habitual handwashing—to a large extent proved effective in arresting the spread of the deadly influenza. Conducting public awareness campaigns together with authorities enforcing stringent compliance measures (imposing hefty fines, coercive enforcement, incarceration, etc.) were the effective vanguards against the further spread of the Spanish Flu.

Since its detection in 1981, HIV/AIDS pandemic has registered a 35 million global death toll (Roser and Ritchie 2014). But thanks to available treatment—antiretroviral—that could prevent HIV from replicating, there appears to be hope in overcoming this pandemic. Besides, the usage of condoms in sexual encounters and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), whereby an individual takes a daily oral antiretroviral pill, could prevent non-HIV people from acquiring the virus.

Economic and Social Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic

Having more than a third of the global population placed on mandatory lockdown, COVID-19 brought forth the largest global recession in history (Duffin 2020). Almost every sector of the economy has been adversely affected, from economic contractions, financial market crashes, postponement and/or suspension of production in manufacturing, business closures and bankruptcy in entertainment, sports, publishing, retail, restaurants, to events organisations and sports gambling industry players suffering losses in tens of billions (Schwartz 2020; Horowitz 2020; Wayland 2020; Thomas 2020; Allsop 2020; Birnbaum 2020). Similarly, tourism and travel sectors, aviation and cruise lines, have all suffered heavy financial deficits (Tounta 2020; Koening and Freking 2020). Major events faced postponements and even cancellations; the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was deferred to 2021 (International Olympic Committee 2020). The upside witnesses an upward surge in online retail sales, and boost in food delivery and courier services (Duffin 2020; Collins 2020).

The political impact consequent of the pandemic thus far has included the loss of key leaders to the disease (for instance, in Iran); threatened regimes and governments that have been blamed for the disease outbreak, its spread, and the death toll; and the overall erosion of political sovereignty and public confidence in governments (Cunningham and Bennett 2020). Moreover, there appears to have been a compromising of civil rights, liberties and democracy itself, with certain governments restricting the media for spreading news (truths, half-truths, fabricated, misinformation, etc.) (Committee to Protect Journalist [CPJ] 2020).

The closure of schools, colleges and universities forced the education sector to focus on viable and practical alternatives in place of face-to-face teacher-student interactions. On-line teaching and learning increasingly gained acceptance and recognition (UNESCO 2020). Virtual church gatherings, live-stream prayers in temples, synagogues, and mosques have radically changed religious devotion and faith practices (Burke 2020).

The adverse social impact is much more worrying with the increasing propensity for depression, mental health issues and suicides (Gunnell et al. 2020; Baker 2020). Social isolation owing to enforced stay-at-home orders has spurred increases in alcoholism, indulgence in pornography, and anti-social online activities. Mandated stay-at-home aggravated financial insecurity, frustration and stress, anxieties and uncertainties that in some cases, have led to domestic violence and abuse (Johnston 2020; Godbole 2020). The elderly and care-dependents are susceptible to infection, and have limited access to information, food, medication and other essential supplies during quarantine periods (United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA] 2020: 3–4). The neglect and isolation of older citizens have seen some succumbing to adverse psychological conditions, viz. loneliness, depression, sadness, hopelessness and despair.

Point of View of Academics: Opportunities Seized, or Opportunities Missed

For the academic, enforced lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, or quarantine, consequent of the COVID-19 pandemic should be seen in a positive light as an opportunity of time. Having to spend days at home allows ample opportunities for one to utilise the time positively and fruitfully. If with family members, the sense of togetherness might nurture closer bonds with one another, strengthen love and familial solidarity. If alone, it is an opportune time for self-reflection, contemplating or drawing plans for the future, or simply enjoying the activities (such as hobbies) that had been set aside in the past for want of time.

However, if one were simply to idle away the hours, sulk in frustration because of one’s isolated predicament, or become angry or depressed: all these might lead to a sad outcome. The extreme downside might result in abusive behaviour, violence in the domestic domain, estrangement, divorce, or other untoward consequences.

For academics in particular, this opportunity of time should be used to think of a “new beginning,” a “new mindset,” to take a reckoning of past activities, discard less than favourable actions and/or thinking, and begin anew with a fresh commitment to one’s aspiration(s). Importantly, the pandemic-imposed “free time” should be “opportunities seized,” rather than “opportunities missed”; the latter can be summed up as having wasted away the hours in fruitless, aimless idleness.

From more than three decades of observations of scholars across the world, academic staff members can be grouped into three clusters: the COMMITTED, the SURVIVOR and the STRAGGLER. The COMMITTED comprises highly motivated high achievers: those active and prolific in research, writing and publication, besides their usual academic duties of teaching, postgraduate supervision, and other student-related activities. Whatever their engine of motivation, they are the ones who “make time” for scholarly endeavours, whether by keeping late nights in their office/laboratory, or working away at their Notebook, oblivious of time or space (train, cafes, office, etc.).

Then, the SURVIVOR, who, literally speaking, just wants to SURVIVE, performing no more, no less than what is required. Everything undertaken is to the bare minimum of effort: teaching, supervision, research, writing and publication, and any other duties and responsibilities. As long as they are not questioned by the higher-ups regarding their work performance, all are undertaken without fervour or rigour, but simply to get-by. The SURVIVOR views his/her academic work as what he/she has to do for the pay-cheque, unlike the COMMITTED, who undertake academic work as what they want to do for “scholarly pursuits,” regardless of the pay-cheque.

In contrast to the COMMITTED is the STRAGGLER. Being an academic might not even be the STRAGGLER’s chosen profession, but for whatever reason(s) or circumstances, he/she is designated a college/university lecturer. Whether it is lecturing, supervision, research, writing or publication, the STRAGGLER struggles through, and at most times, barely making it. Failures are the norm rather than the exception, leading to a hellish existence of barely coping. Deans and heads of departments continuously breathe down their collars, reminding them to meet expectations with encouragement, persuasion to threats, warnings and reprimands.

On face value, it is “opportunities seized” for the COMMITTED, who wholly exploit the opportunity of time created by the pandemic. More work will be produced during this period: reading, writing, research, publication, etc. Like the COMMITTED, the SURVIVOR too will positively adopt “opportunities seized” but not entirely, only to a limited extent, in fulfilling the bare requirement. Once the latter is attained, the given excess time is for their personal (non-academic) enjoyment. The STRAGGLER, on the other hand, views and considers lockdowns, stay-at-home, quarantine, all as “sabbaticals,” not in the academic context, but instead as “holidays.” It is a relief for the STRAGGLER. And they pursue non-academic activities to the fullest. It is to the STRAGGLER of “opportunities missed.” In the aftermath, the STRAGGLER is literally “back to square one,” once again struggling.

Tables 2(a) and 2(b) shows the “Possible/Likely Scenario” and “Proposed/Ideal Scenario,” respectively. The former foresees how each type of academic will use the opportunity of time. The extremes—COMMITTED and STRAGGLER—on opposite ends are both unhealthy and not to be encouraged. Splitting between academic (20%) and non-academic activities (80%) as a possible scenario of the SURVIVOR is also less than acceptable. Instead, the SURVIVOR should exploit fully “opportunities seized” to devote more time to academic-related activities. But more importantly, the SURVIVOR and the STRAGGLER should use this “excess time” to re-look at themselves as well as their career as an academic; it calls for a serious self-reckoning. For the latter, the academic profession might not be the “best” or “the most appropriate,” considering that it will be mainly struggles in all academic activities. An honest self-reckoning needs to be undertaken, and if being a lecturer is inappropriate, then one should seriously consider other alternatives. For the SURVIVOR, likewise a serious self-reckoning is needed: an academic profession might not be the answer if one is satisfied in merely “getting-by.”

Utilisation of Excess Time: Pandemic-imposed Lockdowns, Stay-at-home, Quarantine

Table 2(a): Possible/likely scenario.

Opportunities seized100%20%0%
Opportunities missed0%80%100%
% of academic-related activities (teaching, supervision, research, writing and publications, etc.)

Table 2(b): Proposed/ideal scenario.

Opportunities seized60%80%70%
Opportunities missed40%20%30%
% of academic-related activities (teaching, supervision, research, writing and publications, etc.)

Table 2(b) is a “Proposed/Ideal Scenario” that suggests a balancing between academic and non-academic activities (the latter indicated in “Opportunities Missed”). If both the SURVIVOR and the STRAGGLER decide to remain in academia, they should devote more time to academic activities. The COMMITTED, on the other hand, should “take a break” from academic pursuits, and devote to other non-academic activities, viz. togetherness with loved ones, leisure and relaxation.

Concluding Remarks

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and thereafter, we need to adjust to the “new normal”—wearing a face mask in public places, adherence to social distancing, habitual washing of hands—literally to survive under the prevalent circumstances. What of academics during this present time of uncertainty? It necessitates a self-reckoning by stepping back and evaluating in all honesty and truthfulness of oneself and career. More specifically, the opportunity of time, consequent of the pandemic, if utilised fruitfully, might even transform an academic’s life and future. It is a personal decision whether the excess time on hand represents “opportunities seized,” or “opportunities missed.”


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Ooi Keat Gin is currently an independent researcher following retirement (2019) as professor of history at the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia. Recent publications include Borneo in the Cold War, 1950–1990 (Routledge), as editor Borneo and Sulawesi. Indigenous Peoples, Empires, and Area Studies (Routledge), and Malaysia and the Cold War Era (Routledge). As a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (FRHist), and Honorary Professor of Universiti Sains Malaysia, he is presently working on pioneers and critical thinkers of Southeast Asia (Springer), and a handbook on Brunei (Routledge).

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