Academic freedom in times of Covid-19

30 Mar 2020
30 Mar 2020

"What is the purpose of a political community during a time of crisis? Who is considered expendable, disposable, and why? When countries prioritise their own epidemic, what becomes of the idea of international community and solidarity? If health is a human right, why is it regarded as legitimate to refuse migrants, guest workers, foreigners and other non-citizens medical care, even when doing so exacerbates the crisis? How should the economy and finance be re-imagined, given that the virus has exposed the life and death consequences of the routine precarity that continues to shape the lives of the majority?"

These are some of the tough questions that Corona Times' inaugural article, 'Academic freedom in times of Covid-19', poses to the academy about its role and responsibility in a time of an unprecedented (for this generation) global crisis.

Corona Times is a blog and public engagement project launched by UCT's Institute for the Humanities in Africa (HUMA), which is housed in the Faculty of Humanities.

"In this period of uncertainty, anxiety, suffering and death, we are launching Corona Times, a blog where scholars from social sciences and the humanities from around the world will come together to make humble and valuable contributions to understand the Covid-19 pandemic," explains HUMA director Dr Divine Fuh.

Corona Times  is an international collaborative effort and editorial team comprises Divine Fuh, University of Cape Town, South Africa; Vito Laterza, University of Agder, Norway & University of Johannesburg, South Africa; Mwenya Mubanga, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden; Patience Mususa, Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden; Lauren Paremoer, University of Cape Town, South Africa; and Louis Philippe Römer, Vassar College, US.

"As we continue the journey through unknowns, anxiety, fear, but also already widespread suffering and death, we need to find our academic voice, our certainty shattered by the rapid spread of the virus. Covid-19 is putting into question scholars' relationships with governments, business and societies, but also particularly with themselves," write the editorial team. "As social scientists and scholars in the humanities, we have a lot to offer, but if we are to make ourselves useful in this global crisis of massive proportions, we will need to rethink and adapt concepts and practices of academic freedom to the current moment."

As the death toll increases and the negative economic effects deepen, there is no certain timeline about when a vaccine might be ready, and we don't know when we will be able to do away with current measures of containment, the editorial team adds.

"The social sciences and the humanities are badly needed, but the concept of scientific authority itself needs to be moulded and adapted to the current times. We have a responsibility to be authoritative and use our authority responsibly, but are not in a position to make final statements with the arrogance of those who know with certainty what needs to be done.

"We offer detailed, rigorously researched, ethical expert commentary that humbly explores ways to grasp the various facets of the current moment, and proposes ways forward and evaluates social, economic and public health interventions on multiple temporal scales, from the short-term to the long view."

In a context where fake, inaccurate news and panic-mongering have the potential to exacerbate the virus's damage, bookmarking Corona Times might be a fine idea.