Commentary by Alan Whiteside OBE, Chair in Global Health Policy, Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor Emeritus University of KwaZulu-Natal

This is the strangest of times. The lock-down around most of the world is full swing. Non-essential workers find themselves without employment and, depending on the society, without income. Students ponder their futures and wonder if there is one. Global thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ was published in 2007. He argued that ‘black swan’ events were things that come as a complete and unpredictable surprises; are rare; have major effects; and may be incorrectly rationalised with hindsight. In my second blog on COVID-19 (see 11th March 2020) I argued that this pandemic was not a ‘black swan’ since scientists had warned of an event of this type. I was wrong, COVID-19 is a black swan, the impact of which is changing the world in completely unforeseen ways, on a scale greater than anyone could have imagined. The end is not in sight.

So, what do we do? I have been writing about the epidemic – trying to make sense of the data and debunking rumour and bad science. I have over the years maintained my own website where, no more than once a month, I posted material that interested me and which I wanted to share. People could choose to get email alerts. The rationale was: the blog provided a discipline for writing; gave me a chance to develop ideas and, very practically, covered two sides of an A4 sheet. This could then be posted to a (small) number of relatives, who do not use computer, and for whom the idea of a world wide web is an arachnophobic nightmare.

Research and writing are the bread and butter for academics. The challenge is that, with so much information out there, research and writing needs to be made relevant, interesting and useful. With Covid-19 serving as the biggest challenge of our times, this is the case for all schools of international affairs including the BSIA. In the short term, we must work out ways to do research that is helpful. This is not the first time I have faced this. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as the AIDS epidemic swept through Southern Africa, we had to undertake useful and timely research in the face of a Luddite government. COVID-19 is a far bigger threat and, over the coming months and years, we will also need to protect our intellectual investment: the students who will be working in the transformed world. We also have a chance to influence that post-COVID world, the politics, modes of production, communication and more.

For more information on my writing see