Professor Aisha Ahmad poses with her family.
Aisha Ahmad is an assistant professor of political science, board chair of Women in International Security—Canada, and award-winning author, based at U of T Scarborough. Here she is with her fiancé Simon and cats Max and Ed.
Monday, March 30 - 2020
Jeffrey Keay

As the pandemic commands the world’s attention, the volume and velocity of information seems to increase alongside the skyrocketing infection rate. And with physical distancing the order of the day and most people confined to their homes, social media have become key communication channels. 

Aisha Ahmad is an assistant professor of political science, board chair of Women in International Security—Canada, and award-winning author, based at U of T Scarborough. More than 13,000 people follow her Twitter account.

Her audience doubled in the week after March 18, when she started posting about how people can deal with the current crisis. Her perspectives are informed by her years doing research in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Mali and Iraq. But the feed is also a mix of politics, current events, popular culture, and daily life. 

Ahmad spoke with writer Jeffrey Keay about her posts, how her experience of war is informing the pandemic, the support of her fiancé … and her super-cute cats.

"…in many ways, this global pandemic is actually surprisingly similar to life in a war zone. Even in places with the constant threat of bullets and bombs, some of my greatest emotional challenges were dealing with the deadly uncertainty, powerlessness, long periods of isolation, and mandatory confinement. Wars are not just sporadic moments of intense and horrifying action. In between those bursts are very long periods of crippling boredom and uncertainty. The quiet can drive a person crazy. I have lived under conditions of violence, scarcity, and disease, and even under those conditions, the loneliness and confinement were especially challenging. Just because no one is shooting at you, you're not "ungrateful" for missing hugs, friends, and the freedom to play outside.

…these slow, long, lonely periods can be gruelling. In acute moments of crisis, my adrenaline naturally kicked up and my brain chemistry helped me through. But when I had to hunker down for a stretch, I needed different tools to cope with the psychological stress. I know some people have scoffed and said, “it's not like a war!” but the people I know who have lived through wars beg to differ. They know what a disaster smells like. Indeed, this situation is eerily similar to war, and we will need a wartime level of resilience to handle what is yet to come.

…when folks say they feel awful and are under-performing, I tell them they are actually doing great. That is a sane and normal response to disaster conditions. If you feel bad, be grateful for the sanity of your discomfort. Your pain is much better than the long-term costs of denial. And I promise that you will not feel bad indefinitely, no matter what happens in the weeks and months ahead. Give yourself time to adjust, and you will experience an essential mental shift that will allow you to adapt to the new normal. If you sprint now, you will be vomiting on yourself in a month. This is going to be a marathon, so give your brain a chance to reconfigure. Go slow. Embrace radical acceptance. There is hope, resilience, and even joy on the other side.

…we have never been in this place before, as a society, a country, or a planet. Based on the evidence and the predictive models of our best scientists, the scale of this crisis is simply unprecedented. At this early stage, we cannot fully comprehend how this global phenomenon will affect our economies, societies, borders, and lifestyles in the years to follow. That said, I believe our federal, provincial, and municipal governments are doing everything possible to mitigate the impact of the crisis on our society. Our emergency workers are fighting hard. 

…it is now up to the citizens. Our success or failure is in the hands of individuals and families. There is one key message here: you are not special. Every single one of us has a loved one that we miss. All of us had a celebration planned. Everybody has cabin fever and is dealing with unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms. But nobody – absolutely nobody - has an excuse to break ranks. Even if your kids are screaming, they cannot play on the jungle gym in the park. Even if your friends are your emotional lifeline, you cannot have dinner at their houses. And if you are in self-isolation after travel, you cannot go for a walk, not even for 10 minutes. This is a state of emergency. We are on one team, with no partisanship or divisions. Willfully breaking the rules is like being a wartime traitor. 

…if things gets worse, hold your position. There may well be a lag effect of these emergency measures, and we may see a spike in transmission rates in April. Those of us who have experience with prolonged periods of confinement and wartime stress will continue to try to help you cope and adapt. We will write and share, and you will know that you are not alone and that you can do this. Do not be the person who betrays your neighbours, friends, and family. Stay the course.”

…adopt an attitude of gratitude. A grateful person is an emotionally resilient person, especially under disaster conditions. Don’t wait for the crisis to be over. Identify and give thanks for all your blessings today. Seek out light and joy in every nook and cranny, and then share that light with the world. Trust that discomfort is a normal part of transitioning to disaster conditions, and that you will feel better on the other side of acceptance. An attitude of gratitude will help us all get there faster.

… I also try to share my hope and joy with everyone. My posts are a fairly accurate reflection of my life as a whole. As an academic, I tweet about global politics, international security, research, and justice. But I also love comic books and science fiction. I am an avid boxer and I attend a progressive and inclusive mosque. I am engaged to marry a smart and sweet Sergeant in the Canadian Armed Forces, who now works in our city's emergency operations. Simon is out there as part of our #TorontoStrong team, and I am so proud of him. We have two small cats named Max and Ed who, while blissfully ignorant about the COVID-19 pandemic, are doing their part by being extremely cute on Twitter.

…that said, I am a fairly private person. Social media is a strange beast, especially for shy academic types. When I do post something, it is because I want to share it with the world. Twitter can be a cesspool for negativity and conflict, and I try to avoid that energy. Yet now, under these conditions of isolation, social media has become an essential point of connection for us. Whenever possible, I do my best to share light, love, and of course, research.