Pandemic and academic possibilities: the coronavirus outbreak continues

I blogged about possible futures for the coronavirus on February 12th, then followed up by looking into possibilities for academia two days later. How have things changed since?

In this post I’ll begin with a quick update on COVID-19 according to the sources I track, then I’ll focus on higher education. Keep in mind that I’m working as a futurist, doing environmental scanning, building up forecasts, and drawing on many years of work on disease outbreaks conducted by futurists.

I: The coronavirus in the world

Overall, the number of new cases reported each day in China has decreased in recent days, while the opposite has occurred in the rest of the world.

As of February 22.

That graph is two days old. Here’s the Johns Hopkins report from this morning:

Case by case COVID-19 spreads beyond China. Iran saw its first cases (with conflicting data), which in turn have driven new infections in Bahrain, Iraq, and Kuwait. South Korean instances doubled — on high alert, that nation will now test anybody there who shows any symptoms. Instances in Italy have spread, leading to quarantines for several towns near Milan. The CDC issued a travel warning for Japan as well as South Korea.

As a result, some experts and authorities are asking us to plan on the outbreak becoming a pandemic. This is already spooking markets. The World Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) — a fund designed to provide cash to fight this very kind of crisis — is actually dwindling, as investors reduce its value.

Supply chain worries are real, if not getting a lot of attention. There is some quiet concern about the huge role Chinese industry plays in manufacturing “[a]bout 150 prescription drugs — including antibiotics, generics and some branded drugs without alternatives.” Apple shifted some of its China-based production to Taiwan.

Geopolitics: the United States State Department accused Russia of spreading online disinformation about COVID-19.

More on data and information: the World Health Organization has set up a globe-spanning information gathering enterprise:. They gather data worldwide:

The goals of global surveillance are to: 1) Monitor the global extent of the epidemic; 2) Provide early epidemiological information to support risk assessment at the national, regional and global levels; 3) Rapidly detect new cases in countries where the virus was not previously circulating; 4) Monitor trends of the disease after a first case is imported and; 5) Provide epidemiological information to guide response measures.

They draw on regional and national systems:

WHO regions implemented immediate reporting of COVID-19 cases through systems already in place — such as The European Surveillance System in the European Region, EMFLU in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, and FluNet in the Americas Region; or by setting up a new electronic data collection system (South-East Asia region).

And so there’s one civilization-wide point of information:

A Global Surveillance COVID-19 database centralizing all COVID-19 cases reported from outside China is maintained at WHO HQ, and data analysis is conducted daily to: follow the transmission of the disease between countries; describe the characteristics of human- to- human transmission within clusters of cases; describe the characteristics of affected persons and their exposure history; and support the evaluation of public health measures implemented in response to the epidemic.

I can’t find a public face for this yet. I also have not come across assessments or critiques of this Global Surveillance System (what a title!). If you have, please share.

In the United States the situation is unclear. The CDC’s most recent statement is cautiously optimistic:

Imported cases of COVID-19 in travelers have been detected in the U.S. Person-to-person spread of COVID-19 also has been seen among close contacts of returned travelers from Wuhan, but at this time, this virus is NOT currently spreading in the community in the United States…

For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.

In contrast, WHO deems total world risk as “high.” The State Department and CDC fought each other over how to get cruise ship passengers home; the CDC lost. An Alabama senator NIMBYed very hard claims he got Trump to prevent sending any of those passengers to his state.

At the same time America’s unusual way of financing health care means a large number of uninsured people avoid seeking medical attention. How will they react, what kind of care will they receive if COVID-19 hits them? Perhaps a US outbreak will expand support for Medicare for All.

One potentially huge problem to consider: how will a coronavirus pandemic impact American elections this year?

“In the context of a public health emergency, you want everyone to be able to access the healthcare system,” [Matthew K. Wynia, a doctor and the director of the University of Colorado’s Center for Bioethics and Humanities] said. “You don’t want people with a contagious illness deciding, I’m too afraid.”

China offers one example, canceling its annual parliamentary meeting.

We are already seeing partisan responses to how America is responding to the outbreak. This from a Democratic senator:

On a related point, will institutions suffer a further erosion of trust? For example, should publicly shared statistics about infections and especially deaths turn out to be significantly lower than the reality, would this lead to criticisms and outrage aimed at authorities? Consider how different institutions put themselves at risk by acting on this score: religious bodies, military organizations, medical professionals, alternative medical gurus.

On the flip side, as I wondered earlier this month, will we see those authorities expand their powers? At least one financial site thinks that a worsening outbreak/pandemic can trigger government financial support to troubles industries, starting in China. The IMF has made lending noises. Will American states and/or Trump use fears of coronavirus to arrogate power, even declaring states of emergency? How will political fights play out within nations (cf this example from China)?

News media seem to have decided to inflate the fear bubble. now leads with coronavirus. Here’s from Fox News’ main page:

I am still keeping my eyes open for other short-term possibilities, like new business operations, alternative medical offerings, racism (against China, but watch Iran), technologies, citizen journalism (and its suppression), transnational spats, religious responses, misinformation and reactions, and changing mask practices.

Medium to longer term, I’m considering: changes in f2f meeting practices, accelerated migration online, more vegetarian/vegan diets, some political crashes, an economic recession, and new religious movements.

II: Coronavirus in academia

Italy closed several universities as the disease spread in that nation.

Chinese academia has been hit hardest of all. As John Richard Schrock points out, exams, scholarly conferences, meetings, face-to-face classes, in-person research, in-person publication processes, degree completion, thesis and dissertation defenses have all degraded and slowed down. The hugely important gaokao may be pushed back. The title of Schrock’s piece: “Science has been placed on hold.”

Chinese classes moved online very quickly and at scale:

By 2 February, some 22 online curriculum platforms opened 24,000 online courses for higher education institutions to choose from, including 1,291 ‘national excellence courses’ and 401 virtual simulation experimental courses, covering 12 undergraduate programmes and 18 tertiary vocational programmes.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University launched 1,449 online courses, both live and recorded, for undergraduates and 657 for postgraduates, said Ding Kuiling, the university’s executive vice president.

Ding said the university launched 165 courses on platforms including the massive open online course (MOOC) system for Chinese universities so that students from all over the country can watch them for free.

Peking University said that beginning this week it was offering 563 undergraduate classes with 290 of them livestreamed and 101 video classes provided online via the university’s website, as well as 96 discussion classes via online group chats….

Some international students are still stranded in China. The outbreak has run long enough that some North African students who took classes in China have finished being in quarantine. On a related note, at least one university system is lobbying its government to allow Chinese students to set foot on campus:

The director of Universities New Zealand, Chris Whelan, said the ban was not fair on the students. It also put about NZ$170 million (US$109 million) in fee income from the students at risk.

“From our point of view, it’s extremely serious,” Whelan said…

New Zealand’s universities are heavily reliant on foreign students, particularly those from China. In 2018, 18% of the students at New Zealand universities were full fee-paying foreign students and nearly half were from China.

The University of Queensland cut casual (adjunct) instructor hours (and hence pay) as enrollments sank.

I haven’t seen much in the way of reaction by American higher ed, at least on the teaching side. One exception is how Duke’s Kushan (China) campus moved entirely online, led by Matthew Rascoff (a fine Forum guest, too) — very impressive! How many other colleges and universities are quietly planning similar moves?

Research and resources: the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) launched a COVID-19 online resource center. Northeastern University’s Alessandro Vespignani built a web tool to visualize possible links between travel bans and infection:

From the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health comes another good web app, built by Ashleigh Tuite and David Fisman. It lets you explore how this outbreak can grow depending on several key variables:

WHO has published a database of nearly 600 scholarly articles on and around the coronavirus. (Tech note: they’re using Sharepoint, and post versions of this bibliography in a range of formats.)

If you are looking for more examples of higher ed coronavirus resources online, in my first academia-and-coronavirus post I linked to and described bunch.

Academia and COVID-19 in the short term: I’m looking for more of all of this, from enrollment pressures to campus racism and more online work.

Medium and longer term: it’s possible that student bans will accelerate peak higher education in the US. Online may tip into the world’s leading enrollment space, past f2f. Geopolitical tensions may reverse academic globalization.

What are you seeing around you?

(cross-posted to my blog; thanks to my wife for links and discussion; thanks to Karin Fischer, Eric Feigl-Ding, Peter Rothman, and Art Fridrich for links)



Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.

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Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.