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In extraordinary situations, our decisions and plans should be pragmatic and kind

Author: Professor Cherrel Africa

As we rush to make complex decisions and put necessary plans in place, we must remember to be kind.

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(Published - 16 April 2020)

In May 2017, my sister received a devastating diagnosis. She had breast cancer. We later learned that it was stage 4 cancer and it was metastatic – it had spread to the bones in her back. It was a struggle for her to comprehend and make sense of the diagnosis, and what it meant for her. I rapidly helped her to set up a support structure to assist her in dealing with medical, physical, psychological, emotional, logistical and financial issues. At the time, I felt that I did not have the luxury of working my way through the stages of grieving. 

There was a whirlwind of things to do. Plans needed to be rapidly made and implemented. Resources needed to be harnessed. But at the centre of all of this was a vulnerable person facing the most devastating change that she could ever experience. She was stoic in her approach. She wanted to continue working so that she could have some semblance of normality. She couldn’t do it – by June 2017, she stopped working. At no point on her very traumatic journey did any person tell her to pull herself together or to focus. 

There were two key features to our approach in dealing with the trauma of the situation – pragmatism and kindness. She died in December 2017. Had she survived, she would have needed to adapt to a “new normal” – pragmatism and kindness would still have been important.

I am not a psychologist, so I am writing this from a lay person’s perspective. Additionally, there are limits to how far we can take analogies. The situation that we are in, given the Covid-19 pandemic and the current lockdown, is far more complex. However, I do believe that there are lessons that can be learned from the traumatic experience involving my sister. The website Psychology Today describes trauma as “the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event”. As trauma psychologist Annie Reneau recently wrote:

“We are going through a collective trauma, that is bringing up profound grief, loss, panic over livelihoods, panic over loss of lives of loved ones. People’s nervous systems are barely coping with the sense of threat and vigilance for safety, or alternating with feeling numb and frozen and shutting down in response to it all.”

I must agree with her view that societies are currently going through a collective trauma. It affects every single member of society and requires a collective response. The point that the trauma that we will experience will differ, has been well-made. People struggling to secure their basic livelihoods, those on the forefront of the response, and those who lost loved ones, are likely to experience it differently.

As we rush to make complex decisions and put necessary plans in place, we must remember to be kind. Some might insist that kindness is implicit in their decision-making processes as a matter of course. Indeed, it has been embedded in the discussions that I have been privy to. My suggestion is that we make it explicit. Given the dire situation, we should acknowledge the trauma and gravity of our situation and make explicit the need for kindness and compassion towards the vulnerable.

A good example is the current debate around the academic year. I’m sure that there are many other examples, however, I am located in the higher education sector. Much of the debate, for both schools and tertiary institutions, is around saving the academic year and the mechanisms that can be used to do so. Many institutions have learning management systems which are used to supplement face-to-face teaching. This is important as we stay up to date with technological advances. The departments of basic and higher education, schools and universities are looking at remote learning options to salvage the academic year.

Even with commendable efforts to zero-rate relevant sites, the main issue, as is well-known and well-documented, is the problem of the digital divide and digital exclusion – see for example this piece on SA internet connections. Substantial proportions of school learners and university students in South Africa do not have suitable access to the internet, do not have adequate devices and do not have living circumstances conducive to remote learning.

 As my colleagues and I were discussing our contingency plans, the point was made that we should recognise the magnitude of the current situation and its associated trauma. 

Even if every single learner and student had optimal access to the internet, a state of the art device and the best possible home environment, we cannot leave out the anxiety and psychological effects of just trying to get through the situation – as I mentioned, nobody told my sister to pull herself together and focus.

Are we saying that some learners or students will just have to catch up? If a substantial proportion of learners and students are left behind, are we thinking through the details of plans to help them catch up? This would entail two systems running in parallel. In various situations, we need to ask whether adopting a “the show must go on” approach is the best possible course of action. 

Certainly, this was not the route chosen by the president as he locked down the country. All decisions during times like these are complex. There is usually much behind-the-scenes work that goes on. There is a need to weigh up competing options and some stakeholders will invariably be dissatisfied. And there will be knock-on effects resulting from any course of action.

As we know, the calendar year and the academic year are two different things. The calendar year runs from the beginning of January to the end of December. The academic year is whatever an institution conceptualises it to be. Indeed, it is conceptualised differently in different parts of the world. I am not saying that we should not attempt to save the academic year. Neither am I saying that learning management systems are unimportant – rather, they will be critically important as we transition into any type of “new normal”. I am saying that we will need to pose questions as we think through these complex matters. As stakeholders grapple with various scenarios, to an extent, these questions can help us. This could include questions such as, “to what end?”, or, “at what cost?”

Given current extraordinary circumstances, is there a scenario where we look at reconceptualising the academic year? 

Pragmatism is essential – we need to have plans in place. However, as caring for my sister taught me, kindness is also crucial. At the centre of this crisis are the vulnerable. Could we, therefore, adopt an approach of being both pragmatic and kind? This has been embedded in the president’s approach. While being decisive in setting out the measures to deal with the current crisis, he has called for kindness in the way we deal with the vulnerable in our society. Surely we should follow that example.

This means going beyond merely acknowledging the trauma of the situation, but also building it into the rationale for our responses. 

This piece first appeared in the Daily Maverick https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-04-15-collective-trauma-in-extraordinary-situations-our-decisions-and-plans-should-be-pragmatic-and-kind/


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