I am asked, how did Cov360 come about? It is a complicated story which entails a combination of interactions, engagement in reports, and books. Then it involves ‘we’. We, as a community put our ideas and contributions together to build collectively. Here it is.
The morning following a lively conversation with Dr Tom Corsellis, Executive Director of Shelter Centre, on February 6, after attending the Humanitarian Networking Partnership Week in Geneva, I met a good friend, Maria Duran, to catch up over a drink. Amongst the things discussed was building a blog covering the Sustainable Development Goals and the Humanitarian Nexus Development approach. Weeks passed, distracted from the tasks, I drafted a few articles on SARS-CoV-2. February 23, in an unpublished trend report, I wrote, ‘The rapid spread of the new coronavirus assumes the inevitable decision by WHO that we are facing a pandemic.’ An editor advised it is too early to suggest this. WHO declared the Pandemic on March 11.
On March 1 2020, I met Josh Entsminger, a UCL PhD student from Texas, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London to consult him about the draft trend reports. From then, obsessed, I followed the stats and feared the impending pandemia. It was difficult to ignore the pattern. I felt that due to the lack of governments’ response to mitigation, in countries beyond China, it was a matter of time before it spread exponentially. There was something nefarious about this coronavirus compared to MERS and SARS. The spread was alarming. I know my intuition was not exceptional and likely resonates with others. What I struggle to understand is why so few could see what was coming? There seemed to be a lack of preparedness. By this point, my half-written novel had not seen an update for weeks.
“There was something nefarious about this coronavirus compared to MERS and SARS. The spread was alarming.”
March 10, I finished a book review on, Disaster By Choice: How our actions turn natural hazards into catastrophes, by Dr Ilan Kelman. Which spoke to the need for education as persistently epidemics, conflicts, and ‘natural’ disasters, affect the most vulnerable; the poorest, women, children, elderly, and the disabled.
After travelling back from a work trip in Exeter on March 11, I requested to work from home. The truth was, I did not think it wise to travel on the underground in London after the pandemic was declared, and while I lived with my great-aunt of 70 years, Marianne Rohlen-Abdulla. Constructive paranoia? That weekend I advised her to avoid going to attend a friend’s birthday celebration. Her decision to decline the invitation met umbrage amongst friends. I confidently reassured her — their view would change within days.
“It really is the most global and local story ever” Alex Erquica
On March 15, I called out to peers in the IE School of Global and Public Affairs (SGPA) Alumni group. Let’s make Global COVID trend reports, Alex Erquica responded enthusiastically, “it really is the most global and local story ever”. The response was excellent. Adam Mitchell-Heggs then came on board and since he has consistently input with incisive and ambitious contributions. Isabella Guzman Azcarate has regularly presented reports from Bogata. Belén Ramírez Llopis, from the World Tourism Organisation, has been keeping us up to date with global migration and its new limits. Gianluca Tomasello has been making connections and promoting the initiative in Spain and Italy. Siona Wu-Murphy gave us encouragement. Natalia Meléndez Fuentes, an urban planner from UCL, provided us with early momentum. Yet, we still needed to refine our ideas.
On March 16, I was reading “Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture”, chapter Chapter one, Greek Medicine as Paideia. The pages were now creased from precipitation as I sat in the empty public house garden immersed and unaware of rainfall. But I deciphered — education, striving for excellence amongst the polis and agency to determine the self-governance of health-based norms. I thought ‘this is what is needed!’ Page 12–13 reads: “… the slave doctor gives prescription without explanation, he is an absolute tyrant.” The free doctor treating free patients with scientific instructions exclaims, “you are not curing your patient; you are educating him as if you wanted not to make him healthy, but to make him into a doctor.” Plato thought the education of the patient was fundamental to the healing process. Page 20, the Hippocratic Aphorisms opens, “Life is short, the art is long, opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, and judgement difficult.”  I ceased reading. Where is the education of the polis today to self-govern their agency? I considered that this might be why it appears to be so difficult for a government to introduce social norms to reinforce the imperative of physical distance and quarantine?
The mathematical models are explicit. They inform us why civic responsibility is crucial. And yet, this humanitarian concern was quickly manipulated and seen as ‘othering’ and puerile political gamesmanship. I understood this was because the disinformation campaign was undermining prudence and the imperative to address an ecological, social, and biological crisis. Our systems were unprepared, as though nature was just a cheap commodity despite our fragile existence in the eye of this particular storm. Our shared vulnerability undermined. Dangerously.
The pandemic is a powerful wake-up call, a realisation that we are at the behest of a supra-natural organism, Mother Earth. We are confronted by unknowns, in a cage of finite knowledge, a living species that now does exist in the incomprehensible pantheist reality. The pandemic is more than entropic disturbance, it goes further than the call from the young Swede Nobel Laureate, “your house is on fire”. The social, economic, biological, and ecological ramifications are implicit. Walter Benjamin warned us, “Control of nature, the imperialists teach us, is the purpose of all technology”, for him, education is essential for the bridge between generations. For him, it is “not about controlling nature: but controlling the relationship between nature and humanity.”  I digress.
It is “not about controlling nature: but controlling the relationship between nature and humanity.” Walter Benjamin
I returned home that evening, March 16, picked up another book I’d recently finished: ‘You must change your life’ by Peter Sloterdijk. On page 350, Sloterdijk refers to the 16th Century Czech philosopher, Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius), who professes that, “all the world is a school — and all humans merely pupils.” Comenius intended to transform “the pupil’s soul into a speaking mirror of totality.”  Comenius’s manifesto for world-improving action. His tautology is salvific in ambition. That is, it argues that education should encourage a discerning judgement and take a holistic approach. I thought this could make way for a critically needed stimulus that promotes agency among the public. To support the healthcare system, to preserve life, and to give vital time to those serving society in laboratories.
Supporting science and society is crucial. It is vital to counter the misleading information and consider the context which complicates how we respond to the impending crisis. Collaboration, cooperation, and community are needed. Another concern that came to mind was the often oversimplified cliche based on the economist Hebert Spencer’s emphasis, “survival of the fittest” — this is dangerous. In the words of Mary Midgley, “By contrast, Darwin showed his stature by rejecting this obsessive overconfidence. He thought such generalisations empty”. The case made by Darwin does not speak to individuals. Instead, his concern was the transgenerational survival of heritable traits. In other words, over generations, leaving the gene pool as adaptation takes place — the tragic history of the 1918 flu pandemic or La Pesadilla (Spanish for “The Nightmare”), comes to mind.
“Collaboration, cooperation, and community are needed.”
The present conundrum, ‘herd immunity’, is a high-risk strategy. Not only is the assumptive evidence that immunity will occur in a short time questionable, but it also conveys there is a severe absence of compassion. I found Darwin’s assertion that “communities, which included the greatest number of most sympathetic members, would flourish best” helpful. It speaks to a more holistic and needed empathy. I thought this is possible through constructive advice and analysis. My thought, excellence can flourish, education and understanding can coalesce to curb the waves of disinformation.
The story resumes. On March 17, with Roland Ediage and Yemi Babington-Ashaye, I shared the idea of building an Audio-Visual platform where practitioner advice, expert insights, and eye-witness experiences are shared to reinforce World Health Organisation guidance. They told me to “go for it” and asserted that they would support me. The next day, I called Ashish Mehra, a full stack developer and project manager to request his help, he agreed and commenced the programme management of the site with acumen. Later, Alicia Ramos, a dedicated environmental activist, connected us with Jonathan Uttankar, a talented web developer, who took a leading role in building the website from Mumbai. I spoke to Samia Khan, an urban development planner and alumnae of UCL, who was travelling from the Gulf region to Bangalore that day…. That evening, another old colleague, Mike Shabiti Sevenska, a protection officer in refugee camps, provided a reliable presentation from Uganda on the border with Sudan, he said: “When an African sings he prays twice”. Whether a reader of St Augustine or religious or not, Mike captured the spirit of resistance and the unity expressed from the balconies in Italy and Spain.
Gillian Rose says, “For ‘love of the neighbour’ is introduced as an act, as configured, as an awareness of the otherness of the other”. My thought here is, compassion and empathy are required, within and beyond borders. We face the pandemic collectively, and that belittles nationalist sentiment. Public health, which holds a broad definition to cover a range of socio-economic remits, brings us together.
Within days, on March 20, Michael Baser, a Public Health postgraduate at King’s College London, and my sister Tess Hewett, based in Mexico, and studying a Global Public Health distance learning masters at London School Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) — responded to the call for action. They proactively opened a WhatsApp group with over thirty of their interested peers. A biologist in Ana Clara Queiroz in Brazil joined that day. That same evening, I wrote to a bioinformatician and expert in neurodiversity, Dr Camilla Pang. Her writing attracted me, with segues between science and art. I explained to her how I observed the present crisis giving way to a paradoxical situation ‘of shared isolation and empathic experience.’ The poetic words of Raines Maria Rilke come alive, as “Now, even for humans, there are only bars and no world behind millions of bars. Once, albeit outside, in the old open that grew around us over millennia, where no engineer had more power than a small animal which feels its dominance of the open.” Rilke’s words spoken aloud, speak to the inkling of flora and fauna freed from its dispassionate caretaker, the human.
“Now, even for humans, there are only bars and no world behind millions of bars. Once, albeit outside, in the old open that grew around us over millennia, where no engineer had more power than a small animal which feels its dominance of the open.” Raines Maria Rilke
Unusually for the developed world, the consequence of the COVID-19 is powerlessness. It has brought a need to limit the ‘normality’ of ‘individual choice.’ Now is a time to take stock, as the early 20th novelist Hermann Broch says, “The personal problem of the individual has become a subject of laughter for the gods, and they are right in their lack of pity. The individual is reduced to nothing, but humanity can stand against the gods and even against Fate”. The response has to be collective to overcome this grave challenge. Possibly, the parallel to empathy may expose the fortunate to an experiential insight into what confinement and limits to agency really mean.? Not in a cell. Nor, confined to camp. But rather positively, this can be an opportunity for people in the Western hemisphere to answer, that is, that material objects are less important than freedom of choice and sense of agency. By contrast, in this worldwide pandemic, both the developed world and the underdeveloped world face the ultimate crisis regarding who lives and who dies. This challenge speaks to an extreme vulnerability that crosses human-made borders. In ‘Necropolitics’ Achille Mbembe, explores the philosophical doctrine of social and political influence to dictate who should live and who should die. He asks the question, page 184, “Does the fission of power represent a chance for the human experience of freedom, or will it lead us to the limit of disjunction?”  His point, re-evaluation to strengthen cooperation is desperately needed. Could this crisis be a catalyst to change, to meet the urgent need to rebuild infrastructure and build collaboration which protects the most vulnerable societies and also individuals?
Without evidence, it would be poor judgement to predict that events will change behaviour in the long term. Cohesion across societies to articulate the global need to fill the factor of ignorance and incorporate ethics that build-in, solidarity, empathy, sympathy, and community are required. Nonetheless, questions need answers, healthcare and disaster risk communities amongst others have warned of pandemics. So how and why has this knowledge not manifest into policy? Could one reason be that the gap between specialist knowledge, academia, research, and effective communication with the public remains unbridged? There now seemed more than enough reasons to develop a strategy to implement a collaborative web-based platform.
“Could this crisis be a catalyst to change, to meet the urgent need to rebuild infrastructure and build collaboration which protects the most vulnerable societies and also individuals?”
On March 21, we called for the urgent support from a designer Alec Strobel, someone that strived determinedly to create a professional and trusted branding, he led the way and worked long hours to refine and design dozens of iterations. That same day, I spoke with Olawale Adeniyi, a Project and Growth Manager based in Lagos, he asked me and has consistently since urged, “what’s your next step” and keeps pushing us forward. To get started communication was crucial. On March 22, Misty Liu offered to set up a WeChat account for an audience in China. On March 24, Davina Rajoo-Pillai offered to drive our ambitious social media strategy and has since been conscientiously editing content. That same day, my day-time employers, graciously agreed to provide me with a week’s holiday to put plans into action.
Cov360 was launched officially on April 9. An interested audience online relished the opportunity to ask their questions as the conversation bridged across disciplines, societies, and continents. The panel for the launch included bioinformatician and active new coronavirus researcher, Dr Camilla Pang. Dr Ilan Kelman, a Professor at UCL Disaster Risk Reduction, Global Health, and Professor II at the University of Agder in Global Development and Social Planning. Yemi Babington-Ashaye, President of United People Global, a former Former Director of the Africa Region, and Former Head of the Global Shapers Community at the World Economic Forum. As well my former teacher, Dr Patricia Gabaldon, Associate Professor and Academic Director in Economics at IE Business School.
Early contributors to Cov360 have reinforced the WHO guidance. Advice ranges widely in terms of the focus and location of speakers. From the prompt, “Keep very calm and listen to the correct information” voiced by a South Korean practitioner and student, to the call for awareness concerning the worrying rise in domestic violence and other family-related abuse issues, from a postgraduate student of LSHTM in Singapore. Alongside, other experts note there is an increase in anxiety, self-harm, and suicide for many. Some practitioners explain how they provide community-led initiatives such as healthcare advice in France and Italy, to arrange home delivery for pharmaceutical medicine. From the field, an ICU nurse in the Canary Islands voiced the fear of significant pressure on resources. Also, in the recovery process, a report and message of awareness came from Valencia. A health policy officer in Cameroon, asserted “We need to unite our efforts and collaborate at this important moment.” From Italy, Zogna, speaking in the worst affected areas, his message, “it’s not simple, do not underestimate it”. A Doctor reported from her residence, “Australia has a holistic approach”. On March 22, an epidemiologist in Seattle, US, voiced concern about the lack of testing in her country. We also include personal accounts in Spanish to ensure our growing Latin audience feels welcome!
As we share in this global event, ‘Paideia’ today speaks to the imperative that providing only a prescription without engagement will not suffice. We need to diminish asymmetries in knowledge between experts and the broader public.
Comenius prompted me to realise the extent of interconnected ecosystems between the social sciences, mathematics and life sciences that need to share communication. “We are nodes in a network of exchanges through which we pass images, tools, information and knowledge”, says Carlo Rovelli. We have an opportunity to build a holistic understanding and begin the process of preparation to prevent further hazards from becoming catastrophes. We must acknowledge our failures and evaluate our limitations. Because society has failed to disquiet disinformation, we need to collectively improve the quality of information to build and reinforce the narrative that calls for the establishment of resilient global healthcare infrastructure.
Preparation is key. After all, my mentor, Raficq Abdulla MBE, once wrote to me, ‘we cannot resolve future problems without planning, even if a plan cannot predict unforeseen consequences, by definition.’
‘We cannot resolve future problems without planning, even if a plan cannot predict unforeseen consequences, by definition.’ Raficq Abdulla
There is a need to act in a crisis. There is a need to meet the tide of unleashed disinformation. With Pandora’s box open, we have to scrutinise how and why severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, has engulfed the world.
One important caveat, my particular role has been to bring people together, to coordinate at a time of crisis. That is, I cannot overstate the contributions and input from our volunteer base, which have been tremendous. Each step has been taken by the team and with the team. Over the last pages, some interactions are named, but not enough. We are consistently expanding, networking, and discovering people interested in helping and even requests for advice. The team answered an enquiry from Trinidad and Tobago concerning the production of face masks with the latest insights from CDC, WHO, and reportage of 3D modelling practices. Following requests from Somalia and Pakistan for health-based guidance from Mushtaq Ahmed replied to a Dr in Thailand with a message on managing the coronavirus. We then referred them to Doctors of the World guidance in Urdu and Somalia. Insights have been given in team meetings from the ground in Bermuda, to a US Army base in Georgia from who is a Lieutenant in lock-down.
Pro bono support from an accomplished and generous growth architect Kannan Gophal in Sri Lanka made the launch more meaningful. Ramiro Amaral came on board to offer perceptive strategic advice. Rocío Oyaga, an information analyst in Madrid, prompted us to start trend reports, and Josh Entsminger drafted a strategy with writer Alex Erquica editing alongside analytical linguist, Dr Sandy Richie. With first contributions from Alicia Ramos, Belén Ramírez Llopis, Samia Khan, Cristobal Sapena of UNOPS, and now in a growing team with Oxana Pangina a finance professional from Russia living in Spain, Iman Hameed in Singapore, and Nkengfua Blaise in Cameroon involved. Since the astute Dr Sofia Chanda has also edited alongside the meticulous Alicia Ramos, with experienced Linda Blandford soon joining the team. Farzana Hussain an IE Master of International Relations within a week delivered a trend report and helped on comms coordinated by Davina RajooPillai, alongside Gamze Kilicarslan in Germany, and Tess Hewett in putting a social media plan in action. Cov360 team who have engaged and supported the team also include. Amanda Queiroz, a geopolitics consultant. Patricia Zanella, a social impact entrepreneur based in São Paulo. Annalisa De Vitas, a comms specialist, based in Rome. Rocío García Santamaría, a humanitarian architect based in Barcelona. Now, for video-editing and post-production, Adrian Holgate works on events content and is adding the subtitles to new video submissions. This list does not include the public health group, which consists of 36 dedicated members and is still expanding. As Michael Baser and Tess Hewitt coordinate, Andrea Casale keeps spirits high and the momentum up in the public health group. The latest is a psychiatrist who joined from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. To make this all possible, the collaboration led by Ashish Mehra in web development helped plan ideas based on Alec Strobel’s creative designs, and it is Jonathan Uttankar who has used creative skill and dedication to develop the website from the concept of Cov360 to reach and engage a global community. On this website, videos, trend reports, and events are promoted and shared on an interactive platform. And where the wider global public can engage and contribute alongside experts. In other words, yes, I am the Co-Founder, but in fact, we are just helping to facilitate a massive volunteer response to this crisis, so that those with wisdom, insight and a sense of responsibility can collaborate. We are bonded to the imperative to respond. All contributions to date are gifts of voluntary work. We are uniting to promote change and augment a constructive response to this crisis. We are in this together!
“We are just helping to facilitate a massive volunteer response to this crisis so that those with wisdom, insight and a sense of responsibility can collaborate!”
Now is the opportunity for critical and constructive action to capture and harness the spirit of the age. Collectively, Cov360 is taking a proactive stance.
Victor Frankl wrote, “Every age has its own collective neurosis”, and “every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it.” How and what is our psychotherapy to cope at this tragic time? Amartya Sen wrote in the Financial Times 15 April 2020, “the need to act together can certainly generate an appreciation of the constructive role of public action”. That is the ambition of Cov360, to ensure a mindful society and community does emerge from lockdown through proactive, constructive, and compassionate action.
By Theo Richardson-Gool
On behalf of the Cov360 Global Team.
© 29 April 2020
1. Jaeger, W., 1986. Paideia. New York: Oxford University Press
2. Benjamin, W., 2009. One-Way Street And Other Writing. (Trans. Underwood, J. A.) London: Penguin. P. 114
3. Sloterdijk, P, 2013. You Must Change Your Life. (Trans. Hoban, W.), 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.
4. Midgley, M., 2005. The Owl Of Minerva: A Memoir. Oxford: Routledge. p41
5. Rose, G., 2017. Judaism And Modernity. London: Verso, p.141
6. Sloterdijk, P. 2013. The World Interior of Capital. (Trans. Hoban. W.) Cambridge: Polity Press. P. 20
7. Broch, H., 2002. Geist and Zeitgiest: The Spirit In An Unspiritual Age. (Trans. Hargraves, J.) New York: Counterpoint. p.141
8. Mbembe, A., 2019. Necropolitics. (Trans. Corcoran, S.) Croyden: CPI Group.
9. Rovelli, C., Carnell, S. and Segre, E., 2015. Seven Brief Lessons On Physics. St Ives: Penguin, p.64.
10. Frankl. V. 1959. Man’s Search for Meaning. Washington: Washington Square Press.
11. Sen, A., 2020. A Better Society Can Emerge From The Lockdowns. [online] Ft.com. Available at: <https://www.ft.com/content/5b41ffc2-7e5e-11ea-b0fb-13524ae1056b> [Accessed 15 April 2020].