Writers Series: Imagining Life After COVID-19

The future of humanity: Addressed to the girl in the second row

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Writers Series: Imagining Life After COVID-19This series sits outside of our evidence-based research. It complements The Conference Board of Canada’s work by exploring potential post-COVID-19 outcomes through a speculative lens. In partnership with the Ottawa’s International Writer’s Festival and our own Skills & Education and Inclusion teams, these writers imagine what the near future might look like from their own unique perspectives.

Exactly three weeks before the official declaration of the pandemic and all it entailed for social isolation, physical distancing, and the devastating impact of COVID-19 on so many people’s lives, I had the pleasure of being the co-convener of a symposium at Trafalgar School for Girls in Montreal that included the phrase “the future of humanity.” Organized as part of a reflecting-forward event for the school and its community of students, teachers, families, former students, and architects involved in designing a new school, as well as the McGill community, including some of my graduate students participating in a course I was offering on critical perspectives on youth and well-being, and many others, the symposium had a wonderful vibe.

No one would have predicted that several months later we would be just beginning to come out of distancing. But looking back, it is as though we were already getting ready for something. I think of the thoughtful, calming, and insightful words of the keynote speaker, Thupten Jinpa Langri, principal English translator to the Dalai Lama, a visiting professor at McGill and author of numerous books, including Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy. His provocative talk highlighted why compassion more than anything else now is so critical, and it is our connections to each other that most matter.

Although it is possible to adjust and join the Zoom world, for so many of the girls and young women, COVID-19 has not only curtailed the possibility for dialogue but also made their lives ever more vulnerable because of the distancing protocols and being locked down in dangerous settings.

Now, as I write this, it’s difficult to imagine a school hall being filled with people sitting next to each other and a platform with panelists sitting side by side talking about what worries them, why they are hopeful, what they would like to have happen regarding climate change, what kind of leadership is needed, and the significance of youth engagement.

I remember one of the girls in the second row during the Q & A asking about whether it would be possible to have more dialogues like this in the future. Maybe this issue of our needing more dialogue and more compassion and connectedness really strikes me now in such a powerful way because so much of what my work is about has to do with people engaging with each other. Although, as we are seeing, it is possible to adjust and join the Zoom world, for so many of the girls and young women with whom I work around the world, COVID-19 has not only curtailed the possibility for dialogue but also made their lives ever more vulnerable because of the distancing protocols and being locked down in dangerous settings.

The projects I work on in Sierra Leone, South Africa, India, and Mozambique focus on addressing sexual and gender-based violence. In that work, adolescent girls meet up with other girls, and there are often safe settings where girls produce various forms of art or media about messages that can raise awareness in local settings. Sometimes this work might even reach policy-makers. However, as we think about what has been called the shadow pandemic of sexual violence, I see how ephemeral some of this work has been.

COVID-19: Get all the insights

A recent report by the Brookings Institute notes that many organizations in sub-Saharan Africa working with girls and young women predict that with the extended school closures, high rates of pregnancy will mean they will probably not return to school. The severe economic downturn will also mean that there is likely to be less support for global programs supporting girls’ education. Many of these predictions are based necessarily on worst-case scenarios because it is so difficult to even know what is going on in the lives of girls and young women.

In thinking about the future of humanity, then, I see Jingpa Langri’s message calling for compassion and connectedness being ever more compelling and urgent. For the girl in the second row of the symposium at Trafalgar School who asked about dialogue, yes, we need lots more that might lead to thoughtful and decisive action. Given my work in teacher education in a Canadian university, it is the most important message I can bring to my classes when next we meet, even if it is by Zoom.

Claudia Mitchell

Claudia Mitchell


Claudia Mitchell is a Distinguished James McGill Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University, where she directs the Institute for Human Development and Well-Being. She is also an Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Other commentaries in the Writers Series: Imagining Life After COVID-19:

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