It’s V-Day in the United States. As I write this, the first Covid-19 vaccines are being administered across the country, to frontline health workers. I don’t know how many more months until it’s my turn, but today’s news is joyful all the same. I imagine this is how people living across occupied Europe felt upon news of D-Day; deliverance is at hand, even if we have yet to endure some dark days and months ahead.
War analogies can be strained, I know, but it is appropriate to draw comparisons to other feats of collective imagination, mobilization, and execution to accomplish once unimaginable things for the good of humanity, such as D-Day. And a year ago, the idea of developing a vaccine for a new strain of coronavirus in a matter of months, as opposed to years, also seemed unimaginable.
In an online event we at Arizona State University organized with the Tecnologico de Monterrey last week, ASU President Michael Crow (aka my boss) lamented how starkly different we’d have to grade our social/political realm’s response to the crisis (“a D or F”) and our scientists’ spectacular response.
It was a passing remark, but one that stuck with me. How to define the two realms being graded? It isn’t just the scientists individually who have risen to the occasion, of course, but vast swaths of our societies that have been guided by fact and medical science, and responded with the appropriate seriousness. That includes universities like ASU and the Tec and dedicated unelected public servants in government agencies like the CDC and FDA who get denounced by our populist leaders as “the Deep State,” but also my grocery store down the road that doesn’t allow customers to enter without masks, and all the related logistics companies who’ve kept our supply chains up and running during this pandemic and are now deploying the vaccine across the country. Don’t judge, but I got a little teary-eyed watching a UPS pilot on the news describing what it meant to him to fly the one of first batches of Pfizer vaccine.
We’ve all inhabited both competing realms in 2020 – the reason-abiding one and the other, unserious, one. If you are interacting with a university, airline, financial institution, manufacturing plant, medical facility, or even a large retailer, you’re asked (required, really) to act responsibly, and you expect them to as well. Your own strong pseudoscientific views or individualistic interpretation of your rights to abstain from the collective good are not indulged. But then there is that other realm – which includes interactions with some relatives, some smaller businesses like gyms and bars, and some of the louder voices we’re exposed to on social media – that is unserious in its rejection of any ascertainable fact or science any one finds objectionable. What makes this realm a constant in all our lives of course, at least in North America, is that it includes (speaking of the louder voices on social media) our political leaders.
It is deeply alarming that it’s the more democratic spaces in our lives and in our societies that are failing us. As President Crow said at our event the other day, that failure is on us, as institutions of higher learning. Universities can’t pat ourselves too much on the back for how we handled 2020, given our role over the past few decades in educating so many political leaders incapable or unwilling to abide by reason, and so many fellow citizens receptive to that unwillingness.
The United States and Mexico share the twin contagions of Covid-19 and a populism that is hostile to reason and expertise. The latter of those two contagions undermines the ability of our national governments to work together to coordinate responses to shared threats, and to capitalize on shared opportunities. One valuable 2020 lesson for the bilateral US-Mexico relationship, and for the future of North America, is that we thus need to cease depending on governments to set the pace and tone of cross-border collaboration going forward.
That is why we feel it’s important at ASU to keep broadening and deepening our partnerships with Mexican universities. David Garza, the president of the impressive Tec de Monterrey system with campuses across Mexico, rightly noted in our event last week that 2020 was a year for universities to serve not only their students, but their larger communities as well. He mentioned, as an example of applied research relevant to the crisis, that Tec researchers had collaborated with ASU counterparts to develop technology to monitor the Covid-19 virus in wastewater.
We ended the event by signing an agreement to expand our existing student exchange agreements to permit ASU students to take online Tec courses for credit. It’s another modest step towards further cross-border collaboration in the realm of reason, which will hopefully lead to many other mutually strengthening steps, and eventually, to plenty more D-Days and V-Days in our future.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz