U of T students have expressed their outrage after photos were circulated online showing that the U of T Bookstore was selling surgical face-mask and N95 respirator masks for $100–$160 per box, respectively. The images came out the same day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a “global health emergency;” however, only three cases of the virus have been confirmed in Ontario by public health officials.

Former U of T student Yiran Li expressed concerns about the insensitivity of the bookstore’s sale of masks at a marked-up price in a direct message to the bookstores’ Instagram page. In screenshots sent to The Varsity, the bookstore explained that the masks had been put up for sale due to student demand, and that the high prices were a reflection of the vendor’s surge pricing and cost for rushed shipping. In their message to Li, the bookstore wrote that they would be “removing [the masks] immediately.”

In an email to The Varsity, Vice President, Retail of U of T Bookstore Lotta Lindblom confirmed the explanation given to Li via Instagram. Lindblom went on to say that, “We realize that the way the product was displayed in-store and the lack of explanation regarding the price point was a great misstep on our part.”

Lindblom regrets the decision to sell the masks, writing that, “The display has been removed, and we deeply apologize for the impression it created.  Our goal of servicing our community’s needs was not met, and for that we are truly sorry.”

Meanwhile, students from the Chinese Undergraduate Association at the U of T and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association have been boothing at Sidney Smith Hall throughout the week, handing out free surgical masks for students who are concerned about the coronavirus.

In a written statement made to The Varsity, University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) President Joshua Bowman condemned the actions of the Bookstore. He feels that students are being taken advantage of by a campus institution which has chosen financial profit over providing surgical masks and N95 respirators for free. The UTSU is currently looking at options to provide free surgical masks for free, in consultation with health authorities. 

“For the Bookstore to condone such a blatant display of capitalistic opportunism, this is disheartening and unfair.” 

Bowman went on to affirm that, while fears regarding the coronavirus are serious, it has also led to “some equally serious instances of racism, orientalism, and discrimination that must be dealt with.” This echoes the sentiment of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union’s membership advisory, which condemned the racialization of the coronavirus. 

“We never recommend wearing a mask in public,” David Williams, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health said during a press conference on January 27 — after the second presumptive case of the coronavirus had been identified in Ontario. Williams cited the general public’s inconsistency and improper use of masks, and other public health officials have joined Williams in encouraging the public to prioritize hand-washing, not touching the face and mouth, and seeking medical attention when symptoms arise.

Similar masks can be found online for as low as $30 for 50 surgical face-masks and N95 masks for $60 for 20 masks — however, N95 masks require proper training for fitting, which is key to blockage of airborne pathogens.

The U of T Bookstore is operated independently from the university by University of Toronto Press, a non-profit organization. However, the university released a statement earlier today which had Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh restating public health officials in emphasizing the low risk of the coronavirus to Canadians and that “assessment of risk should be based on travel and exposure history – not on race or ethnicity.”

The Varsity has reached out to the Chinese Students and Scholars Association for comment.

Editor’s Note (January 31, 8:00 pm): This article was updated to include comment from the U of T Bookstore.

Editor’s Note (February 1, 12:15 pm): This article has been updated with recent prices.