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Editorial: Relaxing COVID-19 restrictions puts our community at risk

To address U of T’s policy gaps, we must strengthen our community
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This year, things have been different. RYAN CHOW/THE VARSITY
This year, things have been different. RYAN CHOW/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article mentions suicide.

As this academic year comes to an end, it feels like we finally have memories to look back on with fondness. In the past two years, April was a season of disappointments and anxieties for the University of Toronto community: in 2020, we were all scared of the new pandemic that had rapidly upturned our lives. In 2021, we were bitter about a year spent on Zoom spent without friends, or even any tuition reductions to compensate for the downsides of online school.

But this year, things have been different. 

In-person classes, extracurriculars, and campus events have revived our long-denied sense of community. In a real classroom, it feels like our tuition dollars are actually being put to good use. Exciting, cutting-edge research is progressing again. The food tracks are back, the coffee shops are doing regular business, and we can even look forward to an in-person convocation to celebrate the Class of 2T2 together. 

Up and down campus, student spaces are abuzz with the friendly hum of conversation — including in The Varsity’s offices, where we’ve been able to meet in person for the first time since 2020. Although we haven’t restarted our traditional end-of-semester parties, we were able to invite our staff members to an in-person gathering in the fall semester. After board games and copy editing, we sat around our newsroom tables eating dumplings and rifling through archived volumes of The Varsity

This year has been a reminder of what this period of our lives is supposed to feel like, and how much more precious it is when the experience is shared with others. That’s why it’s so disheartening to see U of T’s lax COVID-19 policies and threatening what we’ve regained.

Last week, the university announced that it is suspending UCheck, vaccination requirements, and mask requirements starting May 1 — an announcement that came just eight days after Queen’s Park lifted provincial mask mandates for most public places.

How can we hope to continue in-person activities safely without the most basic, sensible safety protocols? The statement announcing the changes implied that we’d all be fine without vaccination and mask requirements — after all, 99.6 per cent of U of T students are already fully vaccinated. Vaccinations and masks will no longer be required, per se, but are still going to be actively encouraged because they help keep everyone safe.

In other words, the university acknowledges the effectiveness of these policies and has the infrastructure to continue them, but is still removing them nonetheless.

Removing the mask requirement 

We are not crying wolf. There are good reasons to be concerned that the policy change will have an impact on the health of our community.

We must first acknowledge that Ontario is tragically facing another wave of COVID-19. This sixth wave is already evident when you look at the concentration of the virus in wastewater. U of T epidemiologist and head of the Ontario Science Table Peter Jüni estimated that the province may actually be experiencing 30,000–35,000 cases per day — and the science table’s analysis of wastewater signals suggests that this figure will double as rapidly as every 10 days.

Astronomy professor Hanno Rein tweeted that the university might be lifting COVID-19 safety policies to comply with the wishes of those who are opposed to vaccinations and masks. “If it’s true that more than 99% of UofT community members got a vaccine as they claim, then there is absolutely no reason to increase the risk for everyone just to appease a tiny fraction.”

When we remove the guardrails that the university already has in place, we make it more likely that the virus will spread within the community. This will immediately threaten the health of anyone infected — particularly immunocompromised students who may be more vulnerable. Their needs are not being given due consideration by this policy, which is a clear short-sighted equity failing on the university’s part.

Similarly, this policy change ignores the community members who may have dependents that are at higher risk of negative side effects. Students, staff, and faculty who have children younger than five — who are not currently eligible for vaccines — or who are living with older, more vulnerable adults should be concerned. 

Plus, even moderate cases of COVID-19 can be debilitating if they result in long COVID. While there is a lot we don’t know about this rarer, long-term expression of COVID-19, we know that it creates difficulty breathing and brain fog that can last for months after other symptoms subside. So even those of us who are not immunocompromised are still at a significant risk — and will continue to be after May 1.

And, of course, every case on campus that requires hospitalization increases the burden on health care workers who are already pushed to the limit. 

It is frustrating that this change comes from a university with an excellent reputation for health research. Just last week, UTSC announced that it would be opening a new medical school to address the shortage of health care professionals in the country — the same shortage that has led to their increased burnout and exhaustion during COVID-19. So why are we taking the risk of adding to their workloads?

Collective action for a better campus

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this policy change. After all, the current university administration has historically neglected the wishes of its students.

This neglect is evident in the ongoing lack of action to combat the university’s mental health crises, despite the heartbreaking deaths by suicide that have occured on campus. It’s also evident in how the university only pledged to divest from fossil fuels last October — more than seven years after the divestment campaign on campus began to gain momentum and issued extensive reports arguing for the cause. U of T only announced the decision one month after Harvard University had already cleared a path by pledging to divest their endowment.

Despite all the talk of being a global leader, U of T often seems more interested in following what is already in place. What little change does happen happens slowly, and requires a great deal of effort from advocates. Community voices — our voices — are ignored.

But we don’t have to ignore each other.

In terms of community organizing, U of T has got a long way to go. In other universities, we see students using collective action to enact change: for example, students at McGill recently organized an 11-day sit-in of a campus building to call for divestment. And shows of solidarity like this work on campuses — in 2019, a month-long sit-in at John Hopkins University successfully pressured the administration to end its medical training program for US border officials. But we rarely see such sustained activism at U of T.R

This university has long been a lonely place; that isn’t going to change once the pandemic ends. We will need to remind ourselves of how we felt without a community and take greater care of the one we do have, instead of falling into complacency. We should take the joy of rediscovering community from this year and let it propel us into the future.

Whatever it looks like, solidarity at U of T has to be the way forward. If the university won’t keep policies in place to protect community health, we’re going to have to depend on each other for things as vital as our personal health and safety, whether we like it or not. If the university won’t listen to our voices when we tell it there’s a problem, we’re going to need to depend on each other even more.

It’s not easy to bridge the gap between individuals to build a collective effort. It’s especially not easy in U of T’s isolationist culture, which is visible even when there isn’t a pandemic going on. But there is a lot to be gained by sticking together — if only we can keep choosing to do it.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]