Knowledge Sharing in the Fight Against the Pandemic


With Pascale Fournier and Vardit Ravitsky





Vardit Ravitsky: Not everyone was able to react quickly at the onset of the pandemic, but Pascale Fournier, President and CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, saw the need to reflect on the impacts of the pandemic and the opportunities that lies within the after-pandemic. 


Pascale Fournier: Like all organizations, we were caught off guard by this pandemic. And in our new strategic plan, democratizing knowledge is really at the heart of our approach. So how can some of the brightest Scholars in the country and in the world become publicly engaged educators who give back to Canadians? Early on, we reviewed both active members of our community, as well as alumni, to identify the kind of public educators that we needed to help us reflect on this pandemic, understand it better, see what was previously invisible, and to guide us through this crisis.  


Vardit Ravitsky: I'm not originally from Canada. I came from elsewhere and I'm very aware of how the world sees Canada, as being a society based on justice, equity, respect of human rights and in which the population shows great solidarity. And when the pandemic started, I said to myself, well, here in Canada, it's going to be better than other places, because we already have these core values of solidarity and equity. And then we saw what happened to the elderly and to marginalized groups. I was really surprised and a little disappointed. I wanted to ask you this : was it a surprise for you?  


Pascale Fournier: It’s probably an occupational bias on my part, since I was a commissioner of the Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission for three years, prior to the position I hold now. But I'm very familiar with the theoretical state of the law, and I think this pandemic has revealed to us everything we don't see behind the scenes. So we have a legal system, a system of charters, whether it's the Quebec Charter or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, where rights seem to be taken for granted. The rights do exist. But what this pandemic reveals to us, in fact, is that for the implementation of these rights-if we think, for example, of the elderly and also of the entire hospital system - do we have the necessary workforce, which is well paid, and sufficiently staffed? Are the conditions of employment adequate? It really shows us a whole tragedy that exists behind the scenes. We may have rights that exist in the abstract, that are enumerated in a charter. But when we want to implement those rights, do we really have the necessary conditions? This pandemic has revealed a major gap in our social fabric, in our various institutions. So I'm talking a lot about the hospital environment, but I'm also talking about the legal environment, which I'm very familiar with. Also, for parts of the population that are already marginalized - that is to say that for these people, the right to equality and the right to live without discrimination exists in theory - you find yourself in a pandemic situation, where the vulnerability prior to the crisis is highlighted. One really becomes aware of the enormous gap between the law in theory and the law in practice.  


Vardit Ravitsky: Many of the issues you described may be the result of a lack of investment, or priorities that were not well established before the pandemic. In order to build this better society that we dream of, how can we prioritize when investing our resources? Everywhere, we feel the need to rebuild and reconstruct. How can we prioritize the huge investments we will have to make in the years to come?  


Pascale Fournier: I don't think we will be able to get out of this pandemic crisis if we don't join an unavoidable and irrevocable movement to democratize knowledge. I think we have to mention the climate of misinformation in which we live and people's distrust of science and scientists, which was really prevalent before the pandemic but has reached disturbing proportions in 2020. It needs to be acknowledged, and it's all still going on. So we know, in academia, you can easily be a recognized researcher who publishes extraordinary scientific papers in your field and who's kind of in his or her own bubble... I believe that the great contemporary challenge awaiting intellectuals and researchers is to give back to the public, to be able to make science accessible, to communicate it in a sufficiently simple way while preserving the complexity that is at the heart of the scientific process. So, it is important to inform the public and to fuel these informed discussions around major social issues. In the pandemic, there's all this scientific talk about "Get your vaccine, be informed, wash your hands, etc.," but there's also this talk about "How can we visualize this inequality and address it?" There are different ways to support this reconstruction to be more inclusive, more just, more equitable, and we're going to have to be creative. We're going to have to be original in our way of thinking, of suggesting solutions, of educating. If we think about racialized communities that distrust, for example, a system where racial profiling exists. How do we build trust if that marginalization exists and is also fueled by a climate of mistrust? How do we rebuild better? I think creativity and originality will be needed to do things differently, and then to create that inclusive space and value all members of society, in a spirit of collaboration, humanism and compassion. 


Vardit Ravitsky: All the issues you mentioned about people living in tighter conditions, having less access to resources, perhaps not even to the internet ... When it comes to what children have experienced, the impact of the pandemic on women's productivity and on their ability to work, those issues may not be as visible as the ones impacting the elderly, but they are going to have a long-lasting effect on children, women and families.  


Pascale Fournier: I think it needs to be said, and statistics also point to the fact that women bear a lot of the burden with childcare. And recent university studies show that women's productivity in research has been more affected than it has been for men. The pandemic has also allowed us to reflect on our work environment, how we might have overvalued the importance in-person work. I certainly value teamwork and seeing each other, I value sharing meals, ideas, etc. But this whole crisis also allows us to realize that we can build a more inclusive workplace, that teleworking - maybe not every day, but more regular teleworking - may be a way to meet the needs of some women and men. It allows for greater proximity to the children. Can we imagine a different work environment than the one that existed before the pandemic? Can we imagine, for example, employees being in the office half the time and at home the other half, and communication taking place virtually? After more than a year, I can hardly imagine that employees from organizations everywhere will suddenly go back to the office every day. It's going to have to be a gradual process, a progression with trial and error. So it's going to change forever, I think. Everyone's mental health is still affected. We have to find ways to deal with that now, not when it's too late and someone has already reached a crisis state. And for children, it's important to create human relationships and for them to learn through contact and sharing with other children. Being away for a long time, having to always wear masks, even inside a gym for physical education - and all of this is necessary, I'm all for these health measures, of course - but it still has an impact, I think, on their mental health, on their sadness, on the fact that it's a long crisis. When you've been alive for 7 years and you’ve lived through a pandemic for more than a year... It's very long, and we have to be attentive children’s needs. They don't have the same way as adults have of expressing their needs, their crises and the difficulties they face. So we have to be attentive to symptoms that are less direct, but that are just as important. And we have to accompany them through this difficult period.  


Vardit Ravitsky: I really like the emphasis you put on the positive, that is to say on what we've learned through the pandemic, whether it's the possibility of teleworking more, or the resilience in children.  


Pascale Fournier: I have a lot of hope that, through the post-pandemic period, we will be able to build back on a better foundation, one that's more inclusive and more just. It allows us to dream of a better society, and also create this spirit of solidarity in which members of society can work together and see how we can improve the hospital and justice systems, and the manner in which the State intervenes in situations of violence, for instance, in situations of systemic racism. How can we better accompany vulnerable populations to ensure that their rights and freedoms are not abstract rights, but rather that in their implementation, they are made accessible? I think it is important to mention that we all have a role to play. That's the interconnectedness of this pandemic. It made us realize that we all have that role to play, a responsibility to assume. So let me make this appeal: how can we build back a better world together? I am very optimistic about the future.  


Vardit Ravitsky: I can't wait for us to get to the post-pandemic stage so that we can rebuild a better society, inspired by our Declaration. And thank you very much, Pascale, for this very pleasant and enlightening exchange.  


Pascale Fournier: I thank you, Vardit. And thank you for your remarkable leadership, which has been praised by all during this pandemic. So, thank you for giving us the gift of this privileged guidance, whether it was in the sixteen opinion pieces that were published in the Toronto Star and La Presse, or in our Declaration on ethical considerations and social implications. 


Vardit Ravitsky: Thank you for the opportunity.