Just 10 days ago, the world health organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. According to data collected by Johns Hopkins university, at the time of reporting there are over 300,000 confirmed cases around the world.
What we’re facing is unprecedented and chaotic. Things are moving so quickly that it is impossible to know what the next days, weeks and months will look like. And while in some ways we’re all in the same boat, we also have to recognize that the impacts of the pandemic are not the same for everyone.
Those of us who are young and otherwise healthy may, without knowing it, infect higher-risk people.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults 65 years old and older. Those who are immunocompromised, as well as people with underlying medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, are also at greater risk of adverse outcomes should they contract the virus.
Furthermore, Canada has only 1.95 hospital beds per 1,000 people. If a certain number of people get sick at the same time, hospitals will not have enough beds or ventilators to be able to care for everyone. Practicing physical distancing, washing your hands, avoiding touching your face and disinfecting surfaces are some ways to slow the spread of the virus so that hospitals are able to respond.
Now is a time to stay isolated, but not insulated. While we are distancing ourselves physically, it is important now more than ever to form and strengthen community support networks and look out for the people most at risk. We must navigate this pandemic as individuals, but also as individuals who are a part of a larger community.
Check in with your friends and family, especially those who are at higher risk. The Disability Justice Network of Ontario and the Hamilton Student Mobilization Network have started the CareMongering-HamOnt: Hamilton Community Response to COVID19 Facebook group to connect people in the community to share resources and organize support in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The goal of the volunteer-run group is to redistribute resources and ensure that vulnerable members of the community have access to food, shelter and healthcare — look out for an article on this to come out shortly.
As vital as it is for communities to support one another, we also need support from institutions and government.
McMaster has made the right decision by cancelling classes. The university now needs to commit to supporting students, staff and faculty who are bearing the brunt of the transition. As classes move fully online, how will students with limited wifi and computer access at home be able to complete their courses? What about students who had been employed at the university or elsewhere and are now facing layoffs and financial insecurity?
How will students be supported as they move out of residence on less than a week’s notice? While international and out-of-province students may be granted special permission to stay in residence, the university has not guaranteed that students who are unable to return home for other reasons, such as unsafe living conditions, will be granted extended residence accommodations.
The Emergency Bursary Fund sponsored by the McMaster Students Union is still available for students in financial emergencies. However, there have been no mention of plans to expand this fund, despite the increased need. The McMaster administration should follow the University of Toronto in creating an emergency fund for students affected by COVID-19, or commit funds to supporting the MSU’s Emergency Bursary Fund.
In addition to students, McMaster needs to ensure that hospitality, food service and custodial staff are supported.
Custodial workers are cleaning the buildings that everyone is being told to vacate, fighting germs that may endanger their own health. Hospitality services staff are at risk every time they interact with people. While they are at risk when they come to work, they are also at risk of layoffs, as the university shuts down operations and closes facilities.
In an open letter released on March 16 entitled, “Time to take care of each other and our communities,” university president David Farrar wrote, “we are [. . .] caring and thoughtful and it is the time to show our determination to take care of each other and our communities.”
Campus staff are just as much a part of the McMaster community as any student, faculty member, or university administrator, and the university administration needs to ensure that they are supported and their needs are prioritized during this difficult time.
We all have a role to play in looking out for the most vulnerable in our communities. While we need to be physically distant, it is more important now than ever to build community, practice solidarity and be there for one another — from at least two metres apart.