When we started this journey of fighting Covid-19, we were all uncertain. There wasn’t a playbook so we all did what we are wired to do as humans; we managed what we could see, touch — and rationalise — in between getting distracted, going down rabbit holes and sometimes becoming overwhelmed.
In the beginning, it was literally all about what you can touch — and breathe. We had to distance if we saw anyone at all, we had to wear masks, we had to sanitise. Soon we had to vaccinate too.
The entire process has been an iterative process throughout; the world’s finest scientists all focused on finding solutions, with guidelines and then regulations, mutating to address the new knowledge. As we approach the two-year anniversary of the lockdown, it’s amazing to take a step back and think about the journeys we have all made and what we have learnt en route. It hasn’t often been linear, but rather organic, taking us down different paths than the ones we might have expected.
For us at the business school I lead, our epiphany began with air quality. Researching the virus, we realised that there has to be clean air, because it’s primarily an airborne disease, more than one which is spread by physical contact. But as we began to study air quality, we realised that less than a couple of hundred metres from us is one of the main motorways in the country, with its own major impact on that same air quality. Pivoting from viral pathogens, we began to look at what the effect was of being in such close proximity to all the engine exhaust fumes, benzene gases, smoke and other pollutants.
The deeper we ventured in, the more we were struck by the reality that just as fish need clean water to survive and thrive, so do we need clean air to be at our very best. It doesn’t help being the healthiest koi in the pond when you’re riddled with cancerous tumours; but we don’t think about air quality until we come face to face with it.
I was driving down to the Vaal River recently and it literally was like the dark satanic mills evoked by William Blake’s hymn Jerusalem: the stench of the air, the dark clouds pumping filth into the atmosphere from Sasolburg, people working and living in a grey-green smog. It’s untenable.
You see it too, sitting in an aircraft as you fly from Johannesburg to Durban, the fumes from the power stations merging across the Highveld in a high screen of smog that looks like just a layer of cloud to those on the ground.
When you do see it, you start realising it’s not the big things that kill us, it’s the unpredictably predictable little things that all work together to create the catastrophes that we end up with; the beating of all the butterfly wings, whether it’s planet extinction or the tragedy playing out in Ukraine. But we don’t see this, because we have dulled our consciousness to live in a world where there is no subtlety or nuance, and instead one where we wring our hands and obsess over the big crises because we have trained our minds to react to excitement.
We care for our people. And clean air is part of that care.
We eventually bought and imported 74 state-of-the-art air scrubbing machines from Korea. They work in a five-phase process using carbon, ultraviolet, HEPA, photocatalytic and electrostatic filters. First, we filter the dirty air filled with dust and pollen, then we neutralise the toxic air with its volatile organic compounds: the gases, smoke and fumes; and finally, we decontaminate the sick air with its viruses, mould, bacteria and fungi.
And then we suck that air out as fast as possible and replace it with more clean, filtered air, further reducing the risk. We have also insisted that everyone coming onto campus, staff, students or faculty, be fully vaccinated and we monitor that carefully.
We set about making clean air a priority, while changing behaviour through changing belief structures in the process. That change in belief in turn creates a culture of hope; that we can do something, not just about Covid-19 or any of the other zoonotic pandemics that are lurking on the periphery, but about the kinds of lives we want to live in future. The hope comes from having a plan and being seen to act when many aren’t acting but letting despondency and disillusion take root.
There’s a lot to get us down over and above the current pandemic, here and across the world: unfairness, inequality, corruption. Those same underlying phenomena have given rise to the hard men, the populists who seem to get things done in their countries across the world in a very short-term nature but at incredible long-term cost.
The real solution lies in the sluggers in the middle, who neither give up nor abdicate to the fascists, but who toil long and hard to share a vision and develop a common consensus to get the hope implemented — and keep it implemented.
The quality of the water is key to the health of the fish that swims in it. If we can clean the air in our lecture rooms, libraries and offices, then what about cleaning up the relationships we have with each other and the culture of the organisation? Why stop there? We can clean up the culture of government and how we engage with it and how we hold our representatives to account rather than just becoming despondent and turning our heads.
The best part of all is that there’s no downside. No one is going to come up to you and say (in our case) “what a waste of money, no one died?”, are they? No one is going to say there was never a problem after it went away, because they will now have a far higher degree of watchfulness, recognising the subtle nuances, not just looking but seeing the line on the horizon that is actually a tsunami bearing down, seeing and recognising it as a harbinger of things to come and acting before the impending apocalypse plays out.
If we have learnt one thing over the last two years of lockdown it is that we are incredibly resilient, but we need to ensure that we can build on that for the next crisis, not run the engine dry on this one. The key to doing just that is having a plan, changing consciousness and building hope as you bring people together on a mutual mission and purpose. In the end, that’s what education is all about — except in our case, we’ve added the rider that we’ll have the cleanest air in any campus in South Africa, or Africa. DM