It’s easy to point out the flaws in UMass Boston’s—and the whole of the University of Massachusetts system’s— response to COVID-19. From a seeming lack of preparedness, to communication that often came hours after the news and decisions of other UMass system schools, to measures that seemed to somehow go too far and not far enough at the same time, it’s quite easy to get frustrated at our university’s response to this crisis. Many students feel, validly, like they have been inconvenienced, imperiled, and, overall, dealt an unfair hand in this situation by the powers that be. However, it is a mistake to put too much blame on the administration of UMass Boston, as it is hard to be totally prepared for something unprecedented in modern history.
Never before in our lifetimes, or in the lifetimes of anybody under the age of 102, has humanity faced a pandemic on this scale. In the 102 years since the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed tens of millions (1), the world has changed a great deal. We have seen technological progress abound, from the advent of trans-oceanic passenger flight to the internet. We have seen vast economic advances, with the industrial and post-industrial development of economies all over the world. We have seen massive geopolitical shifts, with the rise and fall of multiple international orders, and the collapse of the great empires of Europe into hundreds of states with varying levels of control over their populations. We have seen, especially in America, massive demographic shifts, from a totally white-dominated society, both globally and nationally, to a more diverse and inclusive world. We live in a world more complex than ever before in human history.
While these changes have been, by and large, for the better, they have also created a whole host of new problems, especially relative to the current pandemic. The ease of travel and trade has taken local diseases global. Economic advancement has allowed for a growing and expanding human footprint that brings us into contact with brand new ailments. The increasing complexity of the international order has made it much more difficult to coordinate the global response needed to address issues like pandemics then when there were four or five all-powerful empires governing the entire planet. And massive demographic shifts have made it more difficult to develop a cohesive response at the individual, state, and systemic level, with clashes of culture occurring from Main Street to the halls of the United Nations.
Enter into this complex, global situation UMass Boston, a microcosm of those vast changes which have occurred. UMass Boston faces all of these problems, from those related to the clash of cultures in one of the most diverse schools in the nation, to adjusting to incredible leaps in technology in a learning environment, to coordination with the local, state, national, and international responses, all while facing inadequate funding to begin with. Given these enormous challenges and the unprecedented nature of this crisis, should we really be that surprised that the administration’s response was, at times, a bit ham-fisted? Should the school have emailed us when they found out what the system’s response was going to be, and have been prepared to shut down the school earlier and have a defined protocol sent to us about what was needed from us? Should they have given on-campus students and students who depend on the school for their basic needs much more guidance on what they should do? Should the school have been prepared to address questions about refunds for specific services and had a better plan for alternate provisioning of these? Probably! Should we be surprised that they were often late, and some of the emails were a bit skinny on the details, and they did not have a strong plan in place for this crisis? Probably not! Should we forgive the administration for things that were absolutely out of their control, from a new disease and form of crisis that humanity has never faced before to new solutions that have never been tested, and do whatever we can to help and continue our education to the best of our abilities? Absolutely!