Remembering Why We Are Here

Sajeev Popat
Sajeev is an MPA/MBA student at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Tuck School of Business
Photo Credit: Harvard Kennedy School

Coronavirus has unceremoniously ruined our Kennedy School experience. Cancelled graduation, ending of in-person classes, no spring formal – all snatched away. Many of us are angry, frustrated, and sad. HKS is that rare opportunity to learn, grow, and reflect on how we can bring change to our communities and the world. We are privileged to learn from an incredible group of professors and students on how to lead, negotiate, craft policy, and solve the great problems of our time. But, in just a matter of weeks, all this has slipped away. For those of us graduating, we can’t don our caps and gowns and participate in a three hundred year-long tradition that many of us and our families may not have dreamed possible.

The coronavirus, however, is a glaring reminder of why we came to HKS in the first place: a devotion to improving the lives of others through government, non-profit, and business. The crisis is no longer an abstract problem far removed from the classroom – it has invaded the halls of our school and consumed our everyday lives. Now we must fulfill the credo immortalized by our school’s namesake: “ask what you can do.”

The fallout of COVID-19 is riddled with complex challenges. People are losing their livelihoods as economies around the world go offline. In China, the urban unemployment rate spiked to a record high 6.2% in February and manufacturing production declined 13.5% in the first two months of the year alone. The US recorded over six million jobless claims last week, the largest ever recorded in this country’s history. As a result, hourly workers, small business owners, and independent contractors have lost their means to feed their families.

Around the world, healthcare workers on the front-lines are sacrificing their lives without the proper personal protective equipment. According to a survey conducted by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), 48% of US healthcare facilities are almost or completely out of respirators. 

Amidst this global crisis, cynicism is easy. Blaming our governments, other nation states, and private industry for mismanagement, incompetence, or failing to act is convenient. In these moments, it is natural to despair over the loss of our normal lives. We lament that we can no longer exercise at the gym, grab a beer at our favorite bar, or simply meet with our close friends. We turn inward. In addition, bearing witness to such suffering can sap our courage to extend ourselves to others and combat the powerful gravity of nihilism.

Now, however, is not the time to turn inward. Just outside our doors, people are suffering – single mothers who have lost their jobs, people experiencing homelessness who cannot physically distance themselves in a shelter, and elderly neighbors who risk their lives when they step outside for groceries. 

We can’t wait until after graduation to put our devotion to public service into action. We must act now. 

Some students have already begun. Students vs. Pandemics, a cross-university initiative, is mobilizing students across universities like Harvard to tackle many of the challenges arising from COVID-19. Nationally and locally, students are promoting stay and contain, volunteering to support frontline medical staff, and sourcing resources for organizations battling economic displacement and inequitable healthcare access. These first steps represent the potential of what is possible, and we must build on these efforts.

Beyond joining mass coordinated movements, we can start small in our communities and make a meaningful difference. Donate food to a local food bank or blood at a blood drive. Deliver groceries to the elderly. Make cash donations to nonprofits responding to the effects of COVID-19. Offer expertise to organizations desperately in need of volunteers. A multitude of small actions can swell into a sizable impact for many.

The coronavirus crisis will be one of the most harrowing experiences of our generation, affecting people across all communities globally. In these moments, we have the opportunity to live up to the promise of our education. The soul of our Kennedy School education is not manifested in a piece of paper handed to us in Harvard Yard at graduation, but rather in the active use of our education and experience to combat seemingly insurmountable challenges facing our families, communities, and nations. The remedy to our despair is to recall the optimism with which we came to HKS: the belief that we can and will solve the great problems of our time. It is time for us to act.

The Citizen is the independent, official newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow @TheCitizenHKS on Instagram and @theCitizenHKS on Twitter so that you never miss a story.

Our mission is to seek the full truth on university and community affairs. In doing so, we challenge assumptions and spark meaningful dialogue on the identity and ideals of HKS. We strive to help the school achieve its own goal: allow people to leave safer, freer, and more prosperous lives. 

If you are interested in contributing to The Citizen, send us an email at the_citizen@hks.harvard.edu.

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