Moving Beyond COVID-19's Shadow

The pandemic has destroyed so much, and revealed inequities and injustices. But it has also shed some light on a path toward transformation.

Safwan M. Masri
August 27, 2020

This is part of a Columbia News series, titled Lessons Learned, which invites the Columbia community to reflect on the pandemic and the insights they have gained from their COVID-19 experience. These essays speak to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have witnessed during this period of unprecedented challenge, as well as some of the silver linings in the actions we have had to take by necessity.

Five months ago, newly arrived in Amman, I wrote to colleagues and friends to share my initial observations on the global crisis caused by the pandemic. I could not have predicted that come August I would still be writing from Jordan, and that this small, Middle Eastern country would have controlled the spread of COVID far better than my second home, the United States.

Like many in this time of uncertainty, I have lost someone to this disease and been frustrated at not being able to do more for others, including friends and a staff member, who are struggling to recover from COVID-19. It is natural for many of us to feel discouraged by daily news of rising infection rates.

But I found within this pandemic a possibility for gratitude and transformation. With Jordan’s border sealed and curfew enforced those first six weeks in the spring, the pace of life in Amman stood still and the noise of urban life ceased. Into the quiet, I began a daily ritual: hour-long strolls in the mornings, before the peak of heat, to explore alleyways, rolling hills, winding streets, and to admire the Jericho stone architecture of the unique, balconied homes with their expansive gardens in my neighborhood. In 15 years of having a home here, I had never truly seen these details—the lines and curves and angles that frame our days.

My new, ritual walks have not succumbed to routine. I am led to discoveries, the most treasured of which are the gardens in my neighborhood that are bursting with fragrant eucalyptus trees, black irises and bougainvillea bushes, which cascade over walls, their branches heavy with jasmine blossoms. In Arabic, the bougainvillea are called Majnouneh, “the crazy one.” It will not be contained. How had I not seen this before? Now when I pause to absorb and admire, the owners who tend these gardens appear, and invite me to sit, share a coffee, trade stories. 

These walks have been a portal to the Amman of my childhood. Smaller, quainter, neighborly, an era and way of life lost to decades of rapid development. Even the daily calls to prayer, a repeated soundtrack of every Muslim country, is a throwback to my youth. With so many mosques now closed because of COVID, the usual calls to prayer over static-filled loudspeakers have ceased. In their place, only one muezzin, with a voice exquisite and pure. Chosen, no doubt, because he is the best. The sound feels elemental and timeless, and yet binds me to this world, to our stories and memories, hopes and dreams, as well as to our sorrows and losses.

Several times a day now, my new COVID world conspires to remind me to give thanks—for the people, for nature, for history, for the moment. This is my respite, and my antidote to the other reality we are all living with, the devastation of this pandemic. I want now to not only think of the future as a time when this pandemic is safely consigned to the past, I want to continue to see as I have here in Amman. COVID has destroyed so much, and revealed inequities and injustices. Our lives, our work and our communities are transforming in its wake. I hope that we choose to transform in the direction I have been walking toward: renewed appreciation, connections, neighbors, stories, shared life.

Professor Safwan M. Masri is Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia and a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).