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Opinion: UTSG bookstore mask controversy highlights the inconsistencies in COVID-19 awareness

Social media gives voice to dissent, but action must not stop there
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ADITI PUTCHA/THE VARSITY
ADITI PUTCHA/THE VARSITY

Chances are you’ve heard about the exorbitantly priced masks sold at the U of T Bookstore earlier this semester. From memes, to posts within the campus community, to editorials in other universities’ publications, the store is — as one Facebook comment put it — “extract[ing] every last drop” of international students’ money. This has ignited the rage of students.

There have been countless reports attacking what the bookstore has done — but is the supposedly righteous anger masking the heart of these issues? As a student body, merely responding to what the bookstore has done through social media comments is not enough.

The University of Toronto boasts over 12,000 international students from China alone. As the 18th-ranked university in the world, the institution considers it a feather in its cap to have a diverse international student body. And if you walk the streets of St. George campus, you’re bound to see people wearing surgical masks in an attempt to protect themselves from COVID-19. Clearly, there is a demand for masks, which explains why the non-profit bookstore, which is run independently from the university by the University of Toronto Press, felt the need to stock them in the store.

However, despite the many requests that were made, it was never the store’s responsibility to stock masks in the first place, and it’s important to remember that we must do more.

Doctors who are on the front lines fighting the virus have repeatedly spoken about how masks are actually counterproductive in fighting this disease. Not only do they promote fear mongering, but the uncomfortable masks actually cause the untrained to touch their faces more than ever before, which exposes the wearer to anything they may come in contact with more than if they hadn’t been wearing the mask in the first place.

The root of the problem is not the inflated price, but rather the bookstore’s inappropriate approach to fighting the disease. Yet, we are doing the same thing in response to the bookstore’s actions.

As tempting as it can be to point fingers, and as powerful as social media is for advocacy efforts, our involvement cannot end there. Merely dredging up the same incident over and over again to signify the University of Toronto’s apathy becomes decreasingly effective as time passes.

Though advocacy against the bookstore’s actions catalyzes this understanding of the university, this ire is preventing us from seeing how we can actually help moving forward, especially since it appears that the virus will be here for the foreseeable future.

Right now, it is dialogue over rage that is linking the campus together — not action. We can easily be fooled into thinking that speaking out against pricing that takes advantage of fear is enough, but it’s not. Instead, being educated in the far greater issues that surround COVID-19 can help us bring about the change we all want to see.

As of February 25 there have been over 80,000 cases of the COVID-19 worldwide. Considering the number of international students across our three campuses, countless fellow students are currently suffering the loss or illness of family and friends. Even if they aren’t experiencing the direct threat of the virus, they are hearing of their families being quarantined, cut off from ‘less urgent’ avenues of medical care, and being pushed out of school for days or weeks on end.

Rather than participating in vitriolic online commentary that sparks more rage than solutions, direct conversation with fellow students can be far more helpful in understanding how students feel about this issue.

According to Regina Angkawidjaja, a first-year international student at Woodsworth College, “It’s important for people to be socially aware, but there is a point where it becomes too much… I definitely think that social media is important but there could be more steps, like donations and actually reaching out to people who you know.”

When experiencing a rush of emotions, it can be easy to think that our part is done once we express our anger, but for many, the bookstore’s prices are not the real problem. In the face of the suffering and stress that COVID-19 brings, it’s merely a blip on the radar. Social media comments won’t help in the long run.

Don’t let ‘rage culture’ fool you — in the midst of it, you can become unaware of those who need to be listened to, oblivious to the information that is vital to spread, and more disconnected from each other than ever.

Whether you think the U of T Bookstore is a prime example of capitalistic opportunism or that their mask prices have been blown out of proportion, it’s becoming increasingly irrelevant as time passes. What is pertinent right now, however, is how we can connect interpersonally and support one another as a campus.

Dana Tors is a third-year English student at Trinity College.