Just months after the COVID-19 outbreak, Continuing & Professional Education students are learning to apply lessons from the pandemic to drive change in their communities. Two current summer courses explore how the virus has influenced everything from food systems to city planning, and how society can prevent future disasters.
“It’s really a unique opportunity for students to learn and study something as it happens in real time,” said Professor Mitchell Cook (pictured on right), who teaches Cities Responding to Global Emergencies: Tools, Approaches, and the Case of Coronavirus.
Cook was inspired to create the course back in March, when The New School’s Graduate Programs in International Affairs announced they were moving courses online. His idea was to use COVID-19 as the scope for analyzing how cities can prepare for and respond to external shocks.
“We had this great opportunity to merge theory and practice,” Cook said. Each student selected a case city and tracked its COVID-related data, policy, and planning challenges. They discuss each city’s response and unique problems together as a class.
“Any one person wouldn’t be able to track what has been going on in 14 cities around the world,” he said, noting recent class discussions on how the virus exacerbated Johannesburg’s challenge with inequality and how New Delhi’s lockdown impacted migrant workers.
“There were pre-existing problems these cities were dealing with before COVID hit,” Cook said. “That’s what makes it such a teachable moment. At no time have cities been responding to similar challenges all simultaneously.”
He used his experience at organizations such as The World Bank and UNICEF to show students how urban systems such as food deliveries and hospital services are all interconnected and dependent upon each other. By viewing it from a city perspective, students are also able to see how cities rationed the resources they had while balancing tensions with their national government.
“All of these pieces very quickly came together as outbreaks were happening around the world,” Cook added.
Professor Juan Gonzalez’s (pictured on left) class COVID-19: Agent of Social Change: A Multi-Country Analysis also offers a global analysis of the pandemic. Gonzalez drew on his past experience in the healthcare, employment, housing, and food sectors of international development, to examine how the disease was manifesting pre-existing social problems.
“All four [of those sectors] have very large problems and challenges in international development and those challenges are becoming all the more evident with COVID-19,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a unique opportunity to raise questions on why things are the way they are.”
Gonzalez was inspired by the notion of non-human agents of social change used in the field of Science, Technology and Society when he named the course. “Many… actions are affected by other agents that are not necessarily human,” he said. “And we have a source that is non-human, and that is the virus.”
Gonzalez’s goal was to use COVID-19 as a tool to interrogate underlying systems. Each of the 16 students were assigned a country and studied its healthcare, employment, housing, and food sectors, while preparing a brief on the country’s response to COVID-19. Class discussions ranged from the social contracts behind France and South Korea’s decisions to comparing the poorer countries with prosperous but individualistic ones. Gonzalez said the discussions always end up comparing the countries to the United States.
“That’s where we are residing, and most of the news comes from the U.S.,” he said.
Both Gonzalez and Cook noted the pitfalls of researching such a timely topic.
“There are challenges with collecting really good information online,” Cook said. “It’s a different approach to learning that kind of values information from wherever we can get it. We’re encouraged to share that information, to use it, but also to examine it critically. Is it helpful to emergency responders? … What are the potential biases?”
He added: “Looking at something in real time frees you up to take information from unconventional sources.”
Gonzalez said he directs students to NGO databases, universities and major news outlets for their sources, but many find their own. “The news changes so quickly,” Gonzalez said. “That is one of the reasons for focusing on the structural problems.”
Both professors hope that their courses serve as a starting point for an ongoing discussion.
“We’re building up a lens and an ability to look at other disasters as well,” Cook said. “They can carry that work forward into other classes.”
Gonzalez said his students learned to organize information in a systematic way through their multi-country analyses.
As for the lasting consequences of COVID-19, Gonzalez said his class is still in “discovery mode.” He predicts that the pandemic could push back some of the strides that disadvantaged countries have made in the last decade.
But, he added, “some optimists say this can lead to some changes.”
“NGOs might be able to take advantage of making people heard in ways that weren’t possible before the pandemic,” Gonzalez said.
Cook would agree that his students will leave the course with the tools to make a positive difference despite the pandemic.
“The hope is that we prepare our students to really make an impact and have a leg up,” he said.
“We have to become comfortable with sharing our work online to be influential and support the change we want to see in these cities.”