COVID-19’s Shadow: Lessons in Transformation

August 03, 2020

Four months ago, I wrote from Amman to share my initial observations of what the pandemic looked like, and to provide an update on how the Global Centers had pivoted. I could not have predicted that, come August, I would still be writing from Jordan, and that this small, Middle Eastern country would have controlled the spread of COVID far better than my second home, the United States.

At the time, the pandemic looked like a sprint; a few months of strict compliance and we would be back to our normal lives. That was before masks became politically divisive, civil rights protests erupted across the globe, and the White House declared that science could not “get in the way of” policy. Now, we know we are in a marathon, not a sprint, and it could be years, not months, before our lives go back to normal, whatever normal means when we get there. 

It would be natural to feel discouraged. Especially if one's daily news feed includes the latest rate of COVID-19 infections and death.

But in our current circumstance lies the possibility for transformation, even gratitude. In his book Leo Africanus, Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf wrote that we should give thanks for “this gift of death, so that life is to have meaning…(for) illness, that health is to have meaning...Let us give thanks..” That is aspirational, no doubt, but as we navigate the perils of COVID, we have been forced, by lack of access, to realize what truly gives our life meaning, almost all of which revolves around a sense of connection—with the self, with others, communion with nature, or even fellowship with the arts. As a result, we appreciate more than ever what their value is and how these spiritual essentials must be the foundation in our transformed routines. 

The need for transformation, in these pandemic-filled months, has not just been at the personal level; it is societal, institutional, and it is universal. 

At the Columbia Global Centers, our transformation has been swift, made possible by our founding DNA, which was designed to be responsive. For example, when students were unable to fulfill their in-person summer internships, the Global Centers tapped into our global network of institutional relationships and created virtual internships in ten different regions of the world. When a dispersed University community wanted continued access to faculty and Global Centers’ expertise, we responded by creating dynamic, globally inclusive webinar programming around top-of-mind issues. And when travel restrictions and uncertainty about school reopening threatened to undermine access to University experiences for Columbia’s international student body, the Centers began to explore a new Regional Hubs and Pop-Up Global Centers initiative that could bring Columbia to its students, wherever they are around the world.

Business, on so many levels, is no longer, “as usual.” The pandemic has upended and transformed us as individuals, as communities, and as institutions. But it has also given us an opportunity to rethink how we live and work, so that we can be stronger once the pandemic is consigned to our past. We are living in COVID-19’s shadow, but we can choose to see light. And for that, we can be thankful.