Silver Linings in a Mesoscale Convective Complex
Toward a Brighter Post-Pandemic World
I begin this year of my presidency feeling thankful. Thankful that I survived the pandemic (so far!) and thankful for the opportunity to serve my discipline at this level. So, before I write another word, I want to say thank you for giving me this opportunity. I did not imagine, indeed, could never have imagined becoming president of this Association when as a child my interest in geography began to develop. I am looking forward to working with the Council on matters of importance to geography and to the members of the AAG. I am looking forward to going to the regional meetings this fall and doing my part to support and encourage the work that the regions are doing. I firmly believe that as its regional divisions thrive, so will the whole Association.
In this column, I’ll focus on the effect of the pandemic on us. I want to acknowledge here our three previous presidents who served their terms under the shadow of COVID-19, as well as our Executive Director Gary Langham who has only known the AAG during the pandemic. David Kaplan was there in March 2020, just as these changes had begun, writing a compassionate column warning of the threat, pointing out how well positioned geography is to help us understand the threat, and asking us to be careful ourselves and to look out for others. Amy Lobben served her term completely virtually, and Emily Yeh’s term was almost completely virtual. Their stewardship has meant that the AAG has not only survived the pandemic, but seized opportunities to re-envision its service to members.
I’m beginning my presidency at a peculiar time in the AAG’s history. For the past two and a half years we’ve been living with a pandemic, forced by the extremely contagious novel coronavirus – COVID-19. This virus and our response to it have changed the way we live and work, the economy, and society, in fundamental ways, some of which we will only recognize in coming years. And these changes are not limited to the US. They are worldwide.
Emergence from the pandemic has not been a smooth transition back to normal, probably because that pre-2020 normal does not exist anymore. We are now in what some call a new normal, and others the post-pandemic world. I wonder, is it true that we are post—pandemic, and if it is, what exactly does that mean? How has this experience changed what and how we think, as well as how we live our lives? How much of that change is good? How much of it do we need to undo? What has not changed and needs to change? What has changed but not enough, so that we still need to work on it? What has changed that we need to keep in its new form? I have a lot of questions.
Emergence from the pandemic has not been a smooth transition back to normal, probably because that pre-2020 normal does not exist anymore.
Over the course of the last two and a half years I have been actively looking at these changes with the express aim of seeing what good I could extract. One might say, actively trying to find the silver lining in the mesoscale convective complex that is COVID-19. It is not an easy task, but I did not want to emerge from the pandemic with nothing positive to show for all of the chaos that it caused. Here is some of what I found.
COVID-19 separated us from each other. Our first response to the virus was to isolate ourselves, either due to official lockdowns or by choice and concern. In that justifiable fear for our lives before vaccines became freely available, we withdrew, stayed home, worked from home, attended classes from home, and tried to play at home. For many of us this was fine. We took the opportunity to focus on family life, DIY projects abounded, selfcare ascended as a vital approach to our days. For many of us, though, the lockdown phase of the pandemic was hugely problematic. Many people could not stay home or lost their jobs because employers depended on us to show up, but we withdrew. Trying to work/teach/host/attend meetings online from an active home was difficult, sometimes embarrassing. And yes, sometimes, that home to which we withdrew was not a safe space. My silver lining (and I realized later, that of many others) is the weekly family Zoom meetings that my brother instituted. We are a large family living in several countries, thousands of miles apart from each other and we had the real fear that isolation forced by Covid would destroy our connectedness. The weekly Zoom meetings have helped to keep us connected even more tightly than we were before the pandemic began.
What has changed that we need to keep in its new form? What has changed but not enough so that we still need to work on it?
We changed how we travelled and communicated. We greatly limited airplane travel and drove fewer miles, especially those who stopped commuting to work. Texts and phone calls and social media were no longer backed up by in-person social events or the daily meetings and conversations at work. Our annual meetings, where we met our colleagues, renewed friendships and collaborations, and shared our research, went virtual. And, despite the heroic attempts of our tech people, virtual spaces cannot compare to in-person for maintaining those vital connections. One—alas temporary—silver lining here was an immediate and significant effect on the levels of atmospheric pollution in major cities around the globe. In Los Angeles, where I “isolated” I have never seen such brilliantly blue skies except perhaps the day after a storm passed over. The pandemic showed us that we could substantially cut emissions of greenhouse gases if we were forced to. Another, more enduring, silver lining here is that as we are emerging from the crisis and able to again meet in person, we have also learned the value—especially for cost, and access—of maintaining a virtual option.
COVID-19 negatively affected our academic units. One of my tasks as Vice President was to organize and host the Departmental Chairs’ Luncheon. As a part of preparing for the discussion, the group was polled for topics of interest. Advice on how to deal with the negative impacts of COVID-19 on their departments was the topic most often mentioned. Their concerns ranged from work overload and burnout to low faculty morale and the fear that the pandemic had forced structural changes, often bringing student and faculty and staff expectations into conflict. These underscored for me how negatively affected we have been by the pandemic and the urgent need to take steps to support our faculty and students in the wake of the pandemic. But the discussion around these issues also revealed to me how strong the desire is to come through this safely and to use what we have learnt to make stronger, more caring departments and indeed a stronger and more caring AAG. It is an opportunity for the AAG to become more relevant to its membership and to the broader community as we emerge from the pandemic.
Changing For Good
This year as President I want to focus on bringing AAG to a sustainable post-pandemic state. I want us to take advantage of the new opportunities that have developed over the past two and a half years. I begin in this column by addressing a couple of the questions that I raised earlier.
What has changed that we need to keep in its new form?
My answer here would be our approach to communicating. For example, there are ways we can improve the experience of virtual meetings at AAG. We do not have to completely sacrifice our annual in-person meeting; however, we should continue to expand and improve our virtual (and hybrid) capacity to provide thoughtful and well-executed options for participation. AAG is already providing new yearlong opportunities for us to engage with each other through Professional Development webinars for leaders and early-career geographers, as well as the Summer Series specifically for students. I can foresee membership growth with simultaneous reduced carbon footprint from this win-win approach.
What has changed but not enough so that we still need to work on it?
There are other answers here, but I will say that our awareness of inequality has heightened, supporting actions that were already started within the AAG. It is no coincidence that some of AAG’s most valuable programming under the Rapid Response to COVID-19–for example, Bridging the Digital Divide and the equity and mental health aspects of the Graduate Summer Series–were also meant to address longstanding inequities within the geography discipline, itself a mirror of inequities in society. As I said in my nomination statement for this presidency, COVID-19 brought these inequities into more prominence: “The legitimate fear of infection has led to an abrupt change in the way in which society operates and communicates, exposing the realities of our inequality.” While the trio of diversity, inclusion, and representation has been a focus in the AAG, it remains a critical issue, and AAG still has work to do to ensure that geography as a discipline becomes inclusive and equitable. We need to continue to work on reducing inequality and to address racial, social and environmental injustice, in our discipline. And the way to do this is through increased diversity, inclusion and representation of under-represented groups. I was excited to read the JEDI framework document and look forward to the implementation of its recommendations.
The way ahead. The pandemic was/is a disruption of immense proportions. However, we geographers are a resilient bunch and because of this we will extract from this experience the pieces that will help us shape ourselves into a bigger/better/stronger organization. We will emerge and thrive, becoming really post-pandemic. I look forward to helping us get there.
Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at raphael [at] geog [dot] ucla [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.