Volunteers (Marina & Evane) | Hi Steve, can you tell us how you started working for Omprakash?
Steve | I started working for Omprakash in 2012. My first exposure to Omprakash was as a volunteer — I worked with a partner in 2009 and then I got back in touch with Willy, the founder, around 2012. We started talking about ideas to create an online platform that would provide training and mentorship to people who work within our network of partners, and we built this program called EdGE, which stands for Education through Global Engagement. And since last year I’m the co-director with Willy and our colleague Alex.
Steve | How would you describe the aim of the organization?
To sum it up in the best way: we facilitate relationships, dialogue and learning between social-change agents around the world, we try to connect people and we try to breakdown certain bases and certain barriers that are still pervasive: colonial legacies and persistent forms of racisms, and structural violence and economic violence. So we are working to connect people to overcome a lot of persistent problems that lead to such terrible inequality in our world.
How did you get involved in the Global Health field?
I wanted to study global health, specifically global environmental health because I always had a strong passion for environmental issues, and when I learned more in university about how health issues and environmental issues intersect, that was very interesting to me and I wanted to explore that more.
What is going to change after COVID-19?
I think this will end up being a real turning point with regards to many types of technology. And on one hand, I think that is something to be hopeful about. And on the other hand, this is something to be worried about. On the hopeful side I think there is so much that technology can do to help connect people. Omprakash has been a web-based non-profit since 2005 so we are super well-versed in what it means to work across digital spaces. But it’s kind of ironic, I guess, because I’m seeing some potential downsides and negatives of COVID-19 with regards to technology — I’m worried that people could get too comfortable with the distance and too comfortable interacting across digital spaces and therefore lose touch with the importance of connecting in person. I’m worried that some people — the inventors and the innovators who are thinking of new ideas to create new technology in response to this crisis — if those people don’t have the contextual awareness about some of the social issues that Omprakash works on — as I mentioned before: legacies of colonialism, persistent types of racism and social violence — then these inventors and innovators of today don’t have those kinds of social, economic and contextual factors in their minds, and a lot of the products that are invented right now are going to be bullshit and, in one way or another, are going to perpetuate a form of inequality in our world.
How will coronavirus impact the environment in the short term and the long term?
In the short term, it’s been interesting to see the effects on air pollution which is what I studied in graduate school and, obviously, we’ve seen a decrease in economic activity, industrial production and therefore air pollution levels come down. We’ve seen India with blue skies for a longer period than they've never experienced in a decade or more. Yes, certainly I don’t know if that’s something to celebrate as much as it’s something to remind us how far we’ve degraded our environmental world. I hope that this is a reminder that there are so many other ways that we can shape our world, and that the current way we are shaping it is not sustainable. In the long term, I’m a cynic but I’m trying to be an optimist in this question. For instance, I think it’s clear that climate change is an existential threat, but it’s just a fact that climate change plays out on scales of time that are incredibly hard for a human to perceive. A crisis like this I hope will help people to focus on the scale of climate change and realize that when we get on the other side of COVID-19, climate change will still be an ongoing crisis on the world that deserves the same kind of mass actions. It’s incredible how COVID 19 has completely transformed the world in a matter of 45 days. It was so quick, and it's a reminder that it is possible to change our world in response to crisis. If we look at climate change with the same level of seriousness as we look at COVID-19, just imagine the kind of actions that countries could take in response to it. Who knows what is going to happen on the other side, but I hope that this helps people and politicians to be more focused on problems like climate change.
Do you think coronavirus will change our consumption habits? How?
This is a really good question, and I haven't thought too much about it. I guess this could potentially make globalization even bigger because countries may grow up more and be interconnected and the economy may just get further link up or countries will just become more worried of cooperating economically and, therefore, kind of closing and produce locally. Of course, there is an upside and a downside in either scenario, we don’t want countries to close off for one or another. We also push the economy to be locally sustainable and healthy, and not the current situation where the country that is willing to pay his workers the lowest is the country where it gets produced.
Which measures could prevent another virus like this one?
There was an initiative called PREDICT that was based out of USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. It was around for a decade and was tasked with being detectives for this kind of new viral threat. They would go into the field and into markets where there is a lot of human-animal contact, and they would look for new viruses. Because this is not a new story: viruses are emerging and changing and mutating all the time, it’s not that uncommon for them to make the jump to humans. Under the Trump administration, PREDICT was defunded, and it was disbanded less than a month before the novel coronavirus emerged in China. That’s probably a coincidence, but it certainly is a big problem and it emphasizes the harm caused when a government doesn’t believe in science. That’s a major problem that needs to be resolved if we want to prevent the next pandemic.
Will coronavirus increase innovations in different fields?
Yes, certainly. I think for web-based technologies this is going to be a watershed moment. With regards to web-based technology, this will be a spark for massive innovations. I teach a global health course this semester, so I’ve also seen the academic side of this where professors are trying to turn classes into online classes, and I have some experience with online learning, of course, because this is how Omprakash works. I'm seeing a lot of people struggle with the transition to online learning, and I think this is interesting but I can’t say I’m surprised that in 2020 online learning still seems very difficult for many in the education field, even in the USA. Although it's one of the most well-resourced countries in the world, many teachers can’t figure out how to do online education, and this is partially because of the lack of the right kind of technology.