Nations on lockdown, industries brought to their knees, and tens of thousands of lives lost—the coronavirus is truly the black swan event of 2020. Where do we go from here? Are we almost out of the woods, or are we just stepping into phase one of an Octavia Butler dystopian novel? What have we learned from SARS, and what might we be overlooking? In the first week of March, just days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and airplane wings got clipped all over the world, Dr. Deborah Seligsohn, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University, arrived in Singapore to work with Data-Driven EnviroLab on an ongoing research project mapping city, province, and company climate efforts in China, as well as share her experience in pandemics.
Dr. Seligsohn’s research focuses on Chinese politics, US-China relations and environmental politics in China and India. She has over 20 years’ experience in the US Department of State, working on energy and environmental issues in China, India, Nepal, and New Zealand. Additionally, Dr. Seligsohn served as the US Embassy Beijing’s Environment, Science, Technology and Health Counselor during the SARS outbreak, and it was to this experience that she spoke at the Coronavirus Teach-In at Yale-NUS College on March 5. Organized by Data-Driven Envirolab and moderated by Dr. Brian McAdoo, Head of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College, the Teach-In brought together Dr. Seligsohn, Dr. Gavin Smith, and a room full of intrigued and concerned students–just under the Ministry of Health’s (then) decreed limit of 50 persons per event–to discuss the coronavirus from both a medical and geopolitical perspective. Dr. Gavin Smith is a Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health with appointments at Duke-NUS Medical School and Duke University. His research focuses on the ecology and evolution of zoonotic viruses and the molecular epidemiology of human respiratory pathogens. He has played a key role in global efforts to control influenza outbreaks by providing genetic analysis to policymakers.
At the Teach-In, over the course of two hours, Dr. Smith, Dr. Seligsohn, and Dr. McAdoo engaged in a lively back-and-forth, fielding questions and covering a variety of topics relating to the coronavirus, from the effectiveness of masks, to vaccines and therapeutics, to larger questions of how global environmental change is affecting people’s health in the region. Amidst a climate of unease and uncertainty, it was refreshing to see students so eager to learn, take notes, and ascertain the facts. Even the speakers were gaining new insights from each other as they shared their professional experiences with SARS and previous outbreaks. As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, cross-disciplinary conversations like these will become all the more vital for delivering effective responses on both the local and global scale.