The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Teachable Moment

Even when the first news broke out of Wuhan about this horrible new flu that was killing people, I do not think most of us could have imagined the scale of disruption that awaited us in a few short weeks. Rather like a speeding, out of control car having slammed violently to a halt, most of the world is now in lockdown. There are some aspects of this that one can get used to, and some that one must not get used to.

Schools are closed but parents and children are now spending time together–albeit not necessarily a restful, peaceful time for most–and if you have the privilege to use it, this is a wonderful teachable moment.

Don’t be intimidated by the thought. A teachable moment does not mean you come with all the answers and deliver them in a sermon to your audience. It means you make a joyful shared commitment to learning together, to seeking questions and answers, to listening and exploring. It is a journey, not a performance, that we advocate.

What is COVID-19? 

“What” questions are the point of departure for learning about everything. On the virus that is causing this global disruption, there is no shortage of information but for smaller children, it may still be useful to talk about:

  • The name of this virus, for instance. And why is it called “coronavirus”?
  • Symptoms of this and other types of influenza.
  • Why are some people dying?

Activity suggestion: Maybe you can look up one of the pictures of the virus and draw pictures of it running away? Especially a good way to also review ways to prevent infection by incorporating ideas about prevention (below).

This can be a good time to reinforce lessons about the prevention of infectious diseases in general. If we talk about different kinds of infections (air-borne, water-borne, contagious), we can discuss different modes of prevention–from hand-washing to boiling water to isolation.

For older children, this can be a good time to raise questions together about water. How do you wash hands and drink plenty of water, if we have water shortages everywhere? This is a useful segue to discussing privilege and inequality. Some of us could run out and by a variety of disinfectant products and soaps. For others, water supply is still an X-number-of-buckets in a week affair. How does inequality become magnified when there is any crisis?

Viruses, bacteria and diseases, in general

There are many remedies and theories about coronavirus doing the rounds via WhatsApp and social media, most of them wildly inaccurate.

Proving adults wrong is a special pleasure for children of all ages. One way to do this is to research viruses and bacteria, and the difference between the two and the diseases they cause. This little science project allows you to then talk about prevention and treatment.

Note: Finding out a beloved adult has been espousing bizarre theories or misinformation is not licence to hurt their feelings. This process also gives us the opportunity to discuss how to point out mistakes without making another person feel bad. 

On the latter, what is the value of the many treatments being suggested? Why is it important to report and go to a hospital for this, rather than try home remedies? Equally, why is haldi-doodh (turmeric milk) still a good idea anyway? If you are an advocate of non-allopathic systems of medicine, this is a good time to study and debate the complementary potential of systems rather than an either-or approach.

Why is there no cure for COVID-19, nor a preventive vaccine? This opens up a conversation about medical research (what you have to study to do it, and also where it is done, for instance), about testing and trials and approvals. Related is the question of medical experiments and their ethics?

With older children, you can also discuss how drugs are patented, marketed and sold. The same medicines cost different prices in different countries. Patented, branded drugs cost much more than generic drugs (what is the difference?). And for the poor, it means that they cannot access life-saving drugs easily.

Activity suggestion: A research-based debate on which is more important–the cost of research and the value of intellectual property rights on the one hand or the importance of universal access to medicines on the other? With a difference in the outcome: no winners, but a way to arrive at a win-win solution (everyone gets something, no one loses). 

Epidemics and pandemics

We used to talk about malaria season and jaundice season at one time. These are times when there is a higher prevalence of an infectious disease than at others. Sometimes, there is an outbreak of one disease and people get it quickly from each other, like conjunctivitis. When this reaches a lot of people, it is an epidemic.

We also use ‘epidemic’ as a metaphor for anything else that is bad that has spread fast–like prejudice and discrimination. We use it to describe gender-based violence–there is an epidemic of sexual assault.

What is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic, and what makes an epidemic turn into a pandemic? You can look up official definitions but let us also look at history. What are the previous pandemics? What happened? How did they spread and how did they end?

More fundamentally, why do epidemics and pandemics happen? We now say there is nothing natural about a disaster. There are events in nature and they become disasters when we have failed to build the capacity to prevent or mitigate them. That is, we have failed to build resilience. We call it a ‘failure of governance.’

  • What is government and what is governance?
  • What do we expect from governments by way of governance?
  • How are disasters and pandemics governance failures?

Activity suggestion: Imagining a pathway to a disease-free society. At one end, you have a society with perfect nutrition and health, and the other end is where we stand. What are the things we have to do on the road to get from here to there? You could list these or draw them or make a collage. (Share it with us and we will post it.)

Over the last 100 years, we have learned and documented many lessons about dealing with crises and emergencies. For older children interested in research projects, it may be interesting to read about some of these. For starters:

The Lockdown and its aftermath

When the lockdown happened, why did people crowd and go home? Why is there a food shortage? Lockdowns, quarantines and isolation are the three most common measures being used to prevent the spread of COVID-19–to flatten the curve, as they say. How does each of these work? What are some other strategies that are being discussed?

The most heartbreaking consequence of the lockdown in India was the rush by migrant workers to go home. It is very important that you and your children sit down and discuss:

  • Why do people migrate into cities to work?
  • What is the kind of work that is available to them? How much do they actually earn and how do they live? Do they have any social security–not schemes, but simple security–a place to stay, a little money saved and people who will help them get through hard times?

All of us depend on the labour of others to ease our days. Whether they are building our houses, selling us bananas, cleaning our homes or fetching and delivering, they are performing an essential service but without a guaranteed, steady income.

People went home in thousands because after years of living in the city, without their daily income, they could not pay rent, could not buy food and certainly could not stay indoors washing their hands. They walked home, in crowds that were far from the recommended physical distancing, hungry and thirsty and sick. Above all, this is a teachable moment to talk about this humanitarian tragedy. What made this tragedy inevitable? What have we done wrong in the last one hundred years?


With most activity being at a halt and working from home limiting many kinds of activities, we anticipate an economic downturn during and after the pandemic. But what will be some of the social consequences? Why does anything (lockdown, pandemic, disaster) affect different people differently? This is a good time to examine our ideas and values around class, caste, gender and ethnicity/ religion. 

For peace educators, all these topics and questions are important but the most important issue raised by the pandemic is inequality. It is imperative that at some point, all of us talk about social and economic inequalities that make any small or large event into a humanitarian disaster. Or rather, there is an ongoing humanitarian disaster with which we live, ignoring it, that is casually unveiled by any passing event. This disaster is inequality–inequality of class, caste, community and gender, and arguably, regions within a state. 

We must use this moment to speak about it it in some way and close this moment with a resolve to end this disaster through some action of our own.

The fact that it was so easy to call this a ‘Chinese’ virus shows that our niceness is very shallow. The kinds of callous statements people are making about the workers walking home show us to be quite inconsiderate. If we are all at home, together, this is a good time to have gentle, but deep and honest conversations about what we really think and who we are. (This is how you can have those difficult conversations.)

And if the conversation is really too difficult for you to start, never mind. We can at least read and think about them!

Lockdown projects:

  • Clippings: We used to keep clipping files. That is, we would cut newspaper reports on a single theme, put down the newspaper name, date and page number on the top and stick them in a file or notebook. Those became historical treasures over time. You may no longer buy a newspaper but you can still do this using a Tumblr or a blog or even a file on your computer. Take screen-shots, copy the URL (recording sources is very important). In even one year, you will find it interesting to come back and look.
  • Journal: Keeping a journal is always a good idea. Write down how each day goes. Ask people in the house–what did they do that they would not have before the lockdown? What do they miss? What are the challenges in the house (no milk!)? What are the opportunities? What do you and others feel? 

This is not an exhaustive list of topics, questions and activities, and we invite you to send us your ideas. We merely want to give you a place to start and a way to get over the shock-induced inertia that so many of us feel!

Don’t miss this Prajnya invitation, as you talk about the pandemic with your families and students:

utopia call




2 thoughts on “The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Teachable Moment

  1. Thank you for these practical, useful, down to earth suggestions, yet broad and forward looking!

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