Twenty-three months ago the World Health Organisation formally declared the then new coronavirus which emerged in Wuhan, China in November 2019 as a pandemic. By then the virus which was named covid-19 had surfaced on every continent and was ravaging some European countries, especially Italy. Within a few weeks of covid-19 being declared a pandemic it become clear that this virus pandemic would hit the world harder than any other pandemic since the Great Influenza of 1918-1920. That it certainly has done, and in the past two years it has driven large groups of people in almost all parts of the world to the end of their tether. These groups have become impatient at the disruption of their lives both by the devastation caused by the disease and also because of the curbs prescribed by governments to combat it.
Two manifestations of very different kinds of frustration brought about by covid-19 were covered by the Indian media this week. One related to Delhi and the other is being witnessed in Canada’s capital Ottawa. Delhi University students held demonstrations demanding that the university should commence physical classes. Some of the protesting students belonged to youth wings of both the ruling and opposition parties. The sentiment of the students was captured by one of them who was quoted in a national English language as saying “During my graduation from Motilal Nehru College I barely attended college and then everything went online. Now my MA is going the same way”.
It is noteworthy that while the Delhi based Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar universities had decided to open classrooms the Delhi University management was reluctant to do so. They claimed that their situation was different because of their large student body in the main campuses and the over fifty affiliated colleges. However, this plea did not cut any ice with the students and it is good that the Delhi University administration announced on February 9 that physical teaching would begin eight days later.
The students protests point to two issues which are of universal applicability. One: online teaching is no substitute for classroom teaching for not all students have the wherewithal to study online. Online teaching therefore inevitably leads to greater inequality. Two: homo sapiens are group creatures and it is natural for them to want physical meetings. This applies to education as to other walks of life. Thus, in the post covid world the number of online contacts will increase but inevitably there will be an intense desire to return to physical meetings. Even in cases where digital universities are being established ways to devise periodic physical meetings of teachers and students may have to be devised.
Now to the protests in Ottawa. On January 15 Canada announced that truckers crossing the US-Canada border will have to be vaccinated. Those who were not would be quarantined on return to Canada. While most truckers are vaccinated a small minority is not. This group decided to launch a protest in the name of freedom of choice through rolling out a convoy which would converge on Ottawa with a view to paralyse the city. The truckers’ convoy consisting of very large transport vehicles reached the Canadian capital two weeks ago and jammed the city’s area around the Parliament building.
While the initial demand of the truckers may have been that the government roll back its vaccination mandate it expanded quickly to other political issues against the government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This included his ouster. Both the truckers’ behaviour against the people of the Ottawa and the nature of the demands made indicate that the truckers’ protest had the support of conservative politicians and white supremacist groups. The truckers harassed Ottawa residents who appeared in public wearing masks and observing general covid protocols. The slogans that were raised by the protestors projected the inherent anti-democratic nature of the white supremacist agenda.
As the truckers’ action in Ottawa proceeded it began to be called the Ottawa siege. The city administration was unable to deal with it and on February 6 the Ottawa mayor declared a state of emergency, clearing the way for the formal involvement of the Canadian government to deal with the situation. As I write these lines Trudeau has not ordered any action either to clear Ottawa nor has he decided to talk to the truckers though the agitation has spread. The truckers are jamming Canada-US border crossing points thereby interrupting the flow of goods. In a Parliamentary debate on February 7 Trudeau said “People of Ottawa don’t deserve to be harassed in their own neighbourhoods, don’t deserve to be confronted with the inherent violence of a swastika flying on a street corner, or a confederate flag, or the insults and jeers just because they are wearing a mask. That’s not who Canadians are. These pandemic restrictions are not forever”. It is interesting that Trudeau indirectly points to Canadian values but the fact is that peoples are tested in times of crises and history shows that all peoples behave much in the same way.
A significant feature of the truckers’ protest is the support that it has got from some right-wing politicians in the US, including former President Donald Trump. This only points to the continuing ideological schism in Western societies which has been exacerbated by covid-19.
The Indian Mission in Ottawa has issued a timely advisory to Indian nationals living in Canada and those visiting it to exercise caution in the areas of protest and generally too. It should not lift the cautionary note anytime soon.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.