A Letter from the Director
March 19, 2020

I write this in the midst of what was to have been our spring break. Today would have been the first day of the Association of Asian Studies’ annual meeting, in Boston this year, where I was looking forward to seeing old friends and celebrating new books. Instead, the Harvard campus is deserted. Our students are scattered across the country and the world, having had just days to pack their belongings and say their goodbyes. This is not how I could have imagined my final semester at the Center and at Harvard, and realising this makes me feel in particular for our graduating seniors. Like all of us, I am getting used to the idea of a virtual campus, as classes (and even my young children’s play dates) go online. Many people around the world face far graver challenges, as jobs are lost, families are divided, and medical workers struggle with insufficient resources.

What can, and should, a humanities center do in these times? As our social and cultural life enters uncharted territory, as borders are closed, as information and anxiety circulate with unprecedented velocity—what insights can the humanities bring?

The Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard has always sought to bring insights from deep, patient, and immersive work in the humanities to bear on the most urgent questions of our time.

Amid the confusion of recent days I have turned, for illumination, to some of the Center’s events of the past year. I have thought a lot about Bathsheba Demuth’s talk at our Environment Forum. She reflected on the intimacy of human dependence on other species—in this case, the bowhead whale—in the Arctic. The origins of this new coronavirus in a wildlife market highlights a darker facet of that interdependence.

I have reflected on the moving testimony at the first of our Border Inhumanities events, on the medical and humanitarian emergency on the US southern border: a crisis that is likely to worsen, both medically and politically, with Covid-19.

This year, we inaugurated a new seminar on Critical Health Humanities: in the coming days, we will feature here a video interview with two of its convenors, Sari Altschuler and David Jones.

The corridors of Barker are silent, but we are still here. The Center’s staff have been hard at work compiling a list of resources and initiatives, locally in Cambridge and further afield, that are providing aid, support, and cultural nourishment through difficult times. (See the growing list further down this page). Please keep an eye on our social media channels for more details.

Already on our minds are the questions we will confront when the crisis has passed. There are urgent policy and political questions, to be sure—how can we be better prepared for the next pandemic, how can we strengthen public health infrastructures around the world, how can we hasten vaccine development? But we will also face more searching, more familiarly humanistic, questions: how should we live, now? What will the crisis have told us about how we value human life, and about how our political institutions value different lives differently? How will we make sense of the loss? And how, if at all, will we grasp the seeds of political possibilities previously unglimpsed?

The Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard will be back with a rich and varied program next year, including many rescheduled events. The Center will continue to be a home for sustained reflection, and we look forward to bringing our community together again after this enforced separation.

Stay tuned, and stay well.

Sunil Amrith
Interim Director, Mahindra Humanities Center
Mehra Family Professor of South Asian History

From Our Seminar Chairs
The seminar chairs of the Critical Health Humanities have been at the forefront of the public commentary on the coronavirus, reflecting on the lessons that historical experience and thinkers – past and present – can teach us.

Communities and organizations in the Boston area and beyond have worked to compile resources and build mutual-aid networks. These efforts aim to connect both people who need assistance and those looking to help their communities in this time of need.

Border Inhumanities & Covid-19
The people in detention camps on the U.S. southern border are more vulnerable than ever amid the coronavirus outbreak. Below is a list of organizations and initiatives compiled by past speakers in our Border Inhumanities series working to provide support to those in need.

  • Grassroots Leadership works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization are things of the past.
  • RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) provides affirmative, defensive, and litigation services to low-income immigrants.
  • Detention Watch Network is a national membership organization that brings together advocates from diverse backgrounds to unify strategy, build partnerships, and strengthen the movement to end immigration detention.
  • Casa Marianella welcomes displaced immigrants and promotes self-sufficiency by providing shelter and support services.
  • Community for Children includes doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers, educators, clergy, and activists focused on the urgent needs of immigrant children and their families on the US southern border.

Things to Do
As cultural centers close their doors and events are cancelled, artists, writers, and organizations are continuing to find ways to keep communities connected and engaged.

  • Tolstoy Together with Yuyin Li – Yiyun Li, whose planned March talk we hope to reschedule for the fall, is partnering with A Public Space to start a free virtual book club. They will be reading 12-15 pages of Tolstoy's War and Peace a day.
  • The Metropolitan Opera – Each day through March 22, a different encore presentation from the company’s Live in HD series is being made available for free streaming on the Met website, with each performance available for a period of 20 hours, from 7:30 p.m. EDT until 3:30 p.m. the following day.
  • Virtual Museum Tours – Virtual tours of museums including the MET, the Louvre, and Van Gogh Museum.