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“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
This year’s graduating class is finishing college during the most consequential health event of the century. The COVID-19 pandemic will reshape every facet of our lives for decades to come. For the graduating Class of 2020, COVID-19 has been transformational already, radically altering the last few months of classes and commencement celebrations. Their ideas about the future now look very different.
Those differences extend beyond just wondering whether new jobs or schools will start remotely. At its core, this pandemic is laying bare underlying dynamics in our world — and making plain the decision we face about where to go next. We have two choices. We can “go alone” — leaving everyone to solve their issues individually. Working alone can be fast, and in a pandemic, speed can feel like the ultimate goal. But speed won’t get us very far. Alternatively, we can “go together” — and work collaboratively to make longstanding changes. It will be slower at first, more deliberate. But it will get us further toward a safer, healthier world. The choice is up to us. And, most of all, it’s up to the next generation of entrepreneurs, researchers, and leaders in this graduating class.
The speed with which this pandemic has spread reflects the preeminent influence of globalization. Along with many low- and middle-income countries, China has become far more international in its trade, business, and education, creating a more interconnected and interdependent world. The amount of travel from China to the United States increased nearly 20-fold between 2003 (during the last SARS outbreak) and 2017. That globalization meant that once the virus started spreading in Wuhan, it likely reached countries around the world within weeks, if not days. There are two ways we can respond to this: we can put up walls, shut down travel, restrict trade. Or we can remember that, because of our highly globalized world, the viral genome sequenced in China led to the development of a diagnostic protocol a week later in Germany, which led to the approval of tests in South Korea and elsewhere weeks after that. Science, innovation, and knowledge can spread even faster than the virus. Instead of retreating from the globalization that helped create this pandemic, we should lean into it, addressing its challenges but leveraging its benefits.
The pandemic has upended our mental models of global leadership. In our old model, knowledge was generated in the Global North and shared with the Global South. This viewpoint — always woefully inaccurate — is now clearly absurd. Which nations have most mismanaged the pandemic? Western Europe and North America. Where has quick and decisive governance, along with shrewd use of technology and public health interventions, kept the outbreak under control? Southeast Asia and, increasingly, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, all of which have fared better than many high-income countries. Some Americans and Europeans will resist this upending of historical power dynamics, hoping for a return to a unipolar world where science and knowledge supposedly emanated from the Global North. But that return is no more likely than a return to obsolete systems of trade, travel, or communication. Instead, we should embrace the multi-polar world: go get a Ph.D. in Singapore or learn economics in India. The center of gravity isn’t shifting away from institutions like Harvard — but it will be shared by institutions like China’s Tsinghua University. In a post-COVID world, innovation will come from around the globe, drawing on the full diversity of global experience and leadership.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reconsider the public-private divide. This supposed fissure falls along traditional political lines – with some favoring governments and others, the private markets. But in the race to develop vaccines, test therapies, and manufacture medical equipment during the pandemic, the world has turned to public-private partnerships. The private sector drives much of the research and manufacturing, leveraging its ample resources and new ideas. Meanwhile, the public sector funds large portions of this, with the promise that new products will be made widely accessible. After the pandemic, we could revert back to the outdated binary, with some viewing the private sector as greedy and self-serving and others claiming that the government is necessarily ineffective. Or we can reject that false choice and embrace the duality, building new efforts to solve complex problems.
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating. But it also has highlighted our communal strengths, sparking a sea of innovation while shattering global barriers. The pandemic has fundamentally altered our mental models of where information comes from and how the world needs to be run. We can look at these phenomena and panic, retreat, and try to recreate the world as it was before. But this is both foolish and hopeless. As the graduating Class of 2020 leaves Harvard, they enter a world where they can make a different choice. They can choose to work together, to embrace knowledge from, and create knowledge with partners from around the world. We can walk through the door that this pandemic has opened for us, welcoming new models of collaboration and creation.
If we do, we can go much farther. Together.
Ashish K. Jha is the Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, the K.T. Li Professor of Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
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