Have you ever felt like a piece of driftwood? A feeling akin to being cast aside and purposeless in a vast uncaring sea? Then you might have felt what is known as anomie.
That old sociological term was invoked by sociologists like Durkheim to talk about social contexts where there is a sense of a breakdown in the social standards and values and ideals. You might argue that I’m being slightly dramatic. I would retort that “slightly” is the operative word in the wake of the pandemic.
Everything that made the world feel predictable and familiar slowly eroded away over the last two years.
People lost their jobs, schools closed, and the news everyday played the same tune of cases rising, an unending economic crisis and social fall-out of the virus in our lives. More so than anything, we have had a rude awakening to the fragility of our own plans and the ability of the social institutions we trust in supporting us to materialise them.
The reopening of schools and the comparatively lower severity of this new variant has sparked a vital optimism in many people as they look forward to the end of this dreadful feeling. However, like some sort of evil mirror in a morbid fairy-tale, COVID continues to draw light to some of the more inconspicuous failings and inequities that thrived in the dark places of people’s ignorance.
Just as everyone did not enjoy equal standing and opportunities before the pandemic, not everyone has been impacted by it equally. That idea should be a no-brainer.
However, if we look to the lived experiences of vulnerable populations, can we really say that the institutions around us, and we ourselves, have acted in acknowledgement of this truth?
I think that if you look long and hard enough you would see that for many people, for myriad reasons, this driftwood feeling of anomie is far from over.
A student living with a disability reached out to the Phoenix to share their experience at UBC during the pandemic and the recent challenges they have confronted during the school’s return to in-person mode of teaching.
This individual, who has chosen to remain anonymous, agreed to help co-author this article by sharing their point of view about how this transition has been like. As you read what they have so graciously imparted, I would challenge you to consider a few things.
The premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, mentioned a couple days ago that everyone is done with “this”. Although he spoke in specific reference to the mask and vaccination mandates that kept everyone safe at the expense of some daily liberties, I believe his comment casts light onto a large dilemma.
A matter of parity and privilege. As you read the following article, try pondering over the following:
- Does my position in society enable me to say that I am done with “this?”
- Do the institutions I live and work in reflect the values that guide my judgement on this issue?
- If not, what can I do about it?
As a person with a disability that puts me at great risk and harm from COVID19, the last two years have been a great challenge. I have had to drastically cut down in-person interactions. A lot of things I could do before such as shopping at crowded grocery stores, attending a class with filled students, and playing group sports et cetera, were no longer an option.
It took me a few weeks to realise and accept the ‘new norm’. Thanks to technology, however, I was able to adjust to this new norm.
From ordering groceries online to attending online watch parties for new TV shows and taking part in ‘zoom workouts’, I was able to take care of myself and establish vital social connections. The technology also allowed me to continue my education as a UBC student, and this provided a sense of purpose, direction and meaning to life in an otherwise volatile time.
However, my pursuit of education may come to an end soon.
As UBC transitions back to an in-person mode of instruction, the university administration does not have any plans to accommodate students who have medical disabilities (or live with a family member who has one) and are at risk of great harm from COVID19.
Earlier this year, I tried requesting permission for attending certain in-person courses remotely. Some professors outright said no and indicated they will not be recording lectures, even though many classrooms have been equipped with lecture broadcasting and recording capabilities.
Other professors were sympathetic but said ‘they were limited by departmental policy and (decision about mode of course) was out of their hands.’ One of the professors was willing to accommodate but needed confirmation from either the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) and/or Associate Dean’s office.
When contacting the Associate Dean of Science’s office and the DRC, I was told that
"At UBC, there is no official accommodation that will allow students with disabilities to attend in-person courses remotely."
Furthermore, the associate dean of science provided information and advice that, far from addressing my request for accommodation, was either contradicting or unhelpful. This included being:
- Told that the mode of course delivery was the responsibility of the course instructor, which as per my experience was not always the case.
- Advised to contact the professor individually to request accommodation (I had already done so before contacting the associate dean office) and that professors are under no obligation to accommodate.
- Advised to consider late withdrawal from courses or taking a whole semester/year off (this has potential negative implications vis-à-vis student loans and their repayment)
- Told to consider initiating an appeal to the UBCO senate Committee on Appeals of Standing and Discipline. I was really perplexed about being told this option, as the committee appeal process is used by students to contest academic standings, not appeal decisions on disability accommodations. This appeal process is costly and time intensive and pursuing it would have been a complete waste of time.
In addition, the DRC advisor and computer science associate head kept reiterating ‘UBC being an in-person university’ and advised me to consider ‘whether it was really the place for me’ (thereby hinting to transfer to another institution).
During the middle of the Omicron wave, I was told by one of the academic advisors that “the situation is getting better as case numbers are coming down, and the University has significant measures in place that students should trust.” As Omicron spread, the public PCR testing system could not keep up with the viral spread in the broader community.
Public Health in BC eventually restricted access to PCR testing and many people could not get tested, despite having COVID19 symptoms. Consequently, COVID19 case numbers are unrepresentative of the overall spread of the disease. Attributing any dips in case counts to ‘situation-getting-better’ is egregious.
Moreover, Interior Health and Vancouver Coastal Health seem to have abandoned contact tracing and UBC does not seems to have any policies or plans in place to address the fallout. Students on campus could theoretically be interacting with COVID19-positive person for days and not realize it till it is too late and they get infected themselves.
As per many posts on UBC and UBCO Reddit channels, students are being kept in the dark about the spread of COVID19 on campus, and it appears the administration is content with maintaining the status quo.
UBC’s measures related to masks distribution and rapid testing fall short. The mask types being distributed are either medical or cloth types, which are not as effective as N95/3M grade, against more virulent COVID19 strains like Omicron. Moreover, test kits are only available in-person to ‘students, faculty and staff displaying symptoms of COVID19’ at the Commons Building.
“From an epidemiological perspective, requiring symptomatic people to travel to the Commons Building (which is often crowded) does not make sense. It could potentially put other people, including those with medical disabilities, at risk of getting infected.”
As a student with a medical disability, I am really disheartened and anxious about my safety with such lackadaisical measures.
One of the main reasons the UBC administration has argued for in-person instruction is the claim that it benefits the student’s mental health.
However, this position has not been unanimously supported even within the institution itself. According to UBC Faculty Association President Alan Richardson, “tying the mental health situation of our students to mode of instruction, is one for which the Faculty Association has seen no evidence whatsoever.” (February 2, Daily Hive article titled “UBC faculty speaking out about next week's return to in-person classes”)
Richardson suggests that the return to in-person could have harmful impacts that are not being considered.
“Post-secondary students are suffering financial and mental health problems from the pandemic but so indeed are young people more generally. In the absence of any clear evidence linking those problems to mode of instruction, the return to campus might very well be in support of solving a problem that does not in fact exist.”
On UBC’s website, it is written,
“UBC is committed to providing accommodation to promote human rights, equity and diversity, and to comply with its duty under the British Columbia Human Rights Code to make its services and facilities available in a manner that does not discriminate…Providing accommodation to students with disabilities is a shared responsibility amongst all members of the UBC community.”
However, my experience in dealing with various personnel and departments across campus indicates that the university has neither intent nor any plans for accommodating students with disabilities who are at great risk and harm from COVID19 disease. Such students are being forced by UBC to make the difficult choice between maintaining their health and continuing the pursuit of their education.
Ultimately, I think the words of this student stress that being “done with this” comes with a great deal of responsibility. Before we rush back to normal, it is incumbent on everyone to consider what it is exactly that we are returning to. Are we reinstating a norm that pushes people into the margins of our human consideration?
There is true concern raised here, that UBC is not protecting its most vulnerable and is maintaining a status quo that disenfranchises and alienates persons living with disabilities from participating actively in their education. They are entitled to the same feeling of purpose, direction and stability as everyone else.
The old world had cracks in it. We cannot, in our desperate desire to escape this virus-fatigue, create even more for our most vulnerable to fall through.