In March, as COVID-19 swept across the globe, a team of academics from Wilfrid Laurier University put together a “rapid response” collection of essays looking critically at the pandemic. Writing in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic: From Vulnerability to Solidarity serves as a “snapshot” of a moment in time for scholars based in Canada when the world was changing quickly, and self-isolation orders and physical distancing measures were just beginning.
Laurier professors Greg Bird and Penelope Ironstone co-edited and contributed to the collection, which contains 10 short essays examining the outbreak. Dr. Bird says the inspiration to create the collection came from seeing critical scholarship coming out of Italy as that country, and its academics and philosophers, grappled with their new reality. Canadians were witnessing a radical transformation as well, says Dr. Bird, an associate professor of sociology.
“During the first couple of weeks of March, we saw a raising [of] an alarm by our governments and the media and the medical establishment … and a moral panic was starting to spread across our society. At that point, all of our conversations with friends or neighbours were about this virus,” he says. “So I thought, what if we bring in some critical voices and put a collection of essays together, looking at different elements of it?”
It took about a week to reach out to scholars for contributions, write, edit the pieces and send the collection to Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto Press. They began contacting contributors on Sunday, March 15, with a due date of noon on Thursday, March 19. Each author was responsible for reviewing and copy-editing at least two other essays and revisions were due on March 20. Over that weekend, the papers were copy-edited and then sent to production on Monday, March 23. Each contributor works in the field of biopolitics, which Dr. Bird describes as an “interdisciplinary field of research that in really simple terms examines how life has been politicized in modern societies.”
And it all took place in a time of stress, as people tried to figure out how to reorganize their lives and set up work-from-home arrangements; not everyone in the net Dr. Bird and Dr. Ironstone cast were able to participate, given the difficult circumstances. “Sadly, we had a smaller group of people who could do it and then on top of [that], we gave people five days to write a version of the paper they had,” Dr. Bird says.
Dr. Ironstone, who studies pandemics, says the two had an opportunity to do something that couldn’t be done during the 1918 flu pandemic. “People were so busy with the work of survival, there was very little of an archive of statements about what was happening as it was happening,” she says. Writing quickly about COVID-19 “would enable … us to have a snapshot early on as we were starting to see these dramatic changes,” that included states of emergency, new physical distancing laws and the shutting down of businesses and schools.
There’s also, according to Dr. Bird, a lack of expertise and critical thinking on the current situation in the media, and this collection aims to fill some of those gaps. “The only people speaking [in the media in Canada] are doctors, people in the biomedical profession … epidemiologists, maybe.” We don’t see many people in the humanities, social sciences or sciences beyond medicine contributing to the conversation, he says.
“The public sphere at this point in time has been appropriated and taken over by a very small group of experts. … That’s deeply problematic in a period where … our freedoms are being impinged upon and we’re having heightened policing,” Dr. Bird says. “I think other voices need to come to the fore.”