The Perfect Enemy | COVID science and post-truth policy at Canadian universities - Canadian Dimension
April 12, 2024

COVID science and post-truth policy at Canadian universities – Canadian Dimension

COVID science and post-truth policy at Canadian universities  Canadian Dimension

What are we to make of the dissonance between university administrators and scientific experts related to COVID-19 across Canadian universities? Photo from Flickr.

In January 2023, Health Canada affirmed that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Nevertheless, weeks later on February 15, Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University abruptly notified its faculty, staff, and students that masks would no longer be required for instructional spaces on campus.

The masking requirement at Laurier was put in place at the beginning of the school year to ensure “a healthy fall term,” with the university stating at the time that “[w]earing masks in these higher-capacity, close-proximity settings helps to limit the spread of COVID-19 within our community.” The week before Laurier lifted its mask mandate, Western University made a similar pronouncement regarding their own public health measures, dropping masks effective immediately.

Faculty, students, and staff at Laurier and Western now join their peers at other institutions of higher education across the country where masks are “recommended” rather than required.

While university administrators across Canada decide whether and how to limit the spread of COVID-19, the faculty they represent continue to publish scientific peer-reviewed evidence of the short and long-term implications of contracting COVID-19, and the efficacy of masks in reducing transmission.

For instance, in a study by researchers at the University of Waterloo (UW), Long COVID has been connected with lower brain oxygen levels, cognitive problems and psychiatric symptoms, a study UW’s media relations team were quick to promote on their social media feeds. Across campus researchers at UW’s Fluid Mechanics Research Lab have shared their findings on mask efficacy, including that they provide “significant benefits,” particularly when in close proximity to others, such as a classroom environment.

Meanwhile, in an interview promoted by Laurier’s Office of Research, epidemiologist and assistant professor Dr. Todd Coleman asserted that “the scientific consensus is pretty clear in terms of having a well-fit, high-grade mask does help in preventing transmission of respiratory illness and infections.”

What are we to make of the dissonance between university administrators and scientific experts related to COVID-19 across Canadian universities?

Universities are supposedly society’s principal proponents of evidence-based decision making. And yet, increasingly we’re seeing university administrators citing scholarship when it supports predetermined positions and ignoring that scholarship when it proves inconvenient to economic and political goals.

At some point we need to ask ourselves: are university leaders undermining and even harming the credibility of the very institutions they are charged with leading?

Following the science

In defending the decision to no longer require masks in classrooms, Alan Shepherd, the president of Western University, declared he was duty-bound to “follow the science”: “Once you’ve decided that you don’t need masks as you’re following the science, then you don’t impose masks just because,” said Shepard. “We’ve tried to have the lightest possible touch.”

Shepherd’s convoluted phrasing —“once you’ve decided you don’t need masks”—betrays the decision-based evidence making that university leadership has increasingly embraced throughout the pandemic. In contrast to Shepherd’s claims that he is following the science, researchers paint a different picture.

Consider the risk of Long COVID, which is now being viewed as both a cardio-vascular and neurological disease. Nearly one a half million adults in Canada—five percent of the population—experienced symptoms three months after infection. Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that “30% to 40% of people who weren’t hospitalized for their initial COVID-19 infection still report symptoms beyond 12 weeks.” Across all age groups, those who have been infected with the virus were found to be at increased risk of heart attacks, with those aged 25-44 the most pronounced with a 30 percent increased risk. And repeated infections further increase these cardio-vascular complications.

In other words, the scientific evidence here is rather clear: if we want to minimize harm, we must mitigate transmission.

Indeed, the reasoning of administrators has not only fallen short of the science, but of sound reason. In arguing that now is “the right time” to drop the masks, Shepherd cited the relatively low levels of COVID-19 in wastewater data. However, the baseline number of infections remains inordinately high. It follows that reducing public health measures when a wave is receding would, given that high baseline, simply risk precipitating the next wave of infections, bringing back the demand for preventive measures that, if left in place, would have blunted the surge in the first place and cut down on those repeat infections. By Shepherd’s logic, once we’ve bailed the water out of a leaky boat, we should remove the patch and start the cycle all over again.

The fact is, masks work, and the precautionary principle remains sound, responsible policy, at least if the intent is to minimize infections. To claim otherwise in the name of science is to so contort the word beyond recognition that it broaches on a post-truth discourse in which the research and evidence produced at today’s universities have little to no bearing on our lives. Beyond the science, the fact that masks can be seen in September of 2022 as a healthy, responsible public health measure, only to be deemed superfluous six months later indicates a capricious and easily swayed decision-making process.

Stolen valour

Compounding these issues is the fact that Canadian universities continue to promote scholarship from their own faculty on the harms and hazards of COVID-19 while minimizing or outright dismissing that evidence in their own decision-making.

Back in 2020, Laurier’s Office of Research promoted the expertise of their faculty to “put evidence about coronavirus into action.” In the aforementioned interview with Dr. Coleman, the one promoted by Laurier’s Office of Research, he states that “The rule [requiring masks] needs to be there; also, the language that comes out—encouraging, recommending—those are soft terms, having a mandate and saying that masks are required, that’s more forceful, people will adhere to those kinds of things.” Such expertise is evidently good enough to promote, but not compelling enough to follow.

Universities commodify the scholarship of their faculty, using their labour, expertise, and rigor to attract students, researchers, and funding. Institutionally, they borrow their prestige and scholarly reputations from their faculty. This works in principle as it generally benefits all parties. But in practice, what we’re seeing is leadership promoting the expertise of their faculty in public, while in private they are choosing to ignore that expertise and instead embrace the more politically expedient approach of decision-based evidence making.

Throughout the pandemic, faculty at various institutions have been subjected to a mix of resounding silence and a steady stream of doublespeak from administrators. For instance, faculty have been repeatedly told that administration cannot act without the dispensation of public health officials and that universities have a responsibility to act even when such dispensation fails to materialize—hence the masking requirements in the first place, which did not originate from a public health order but from sustained community pressure to abide by the science and improve health and safety on campuses.

The risk here—beyond the short- and long-term harm COVID-19 poses to faculty, staff, and students—is a loss of trust in these institutions and their capacity to fulfill their social mission. Whether you work or learn at a university or not, we should all find it troubling to see leaders in higher education picking and choosing when evidence will inform their policies and practices. And we should hold in contempt those who promote science in public—for prestige and academic valor—and ignore it in practice.

Random kindness, planned callousness

On February 17, the day after Laurier lifted its masking requirement, the president of the university posted a picture to her official Laurier social media account for “Random Act of Kindness Day” in which she stood, maskless, with a group of unmasked student leaders. The juxtaposition was stark and illustrative. Planned, evidence-based decisions to minimize harm are out, random symbolic acts of kindness are in.

Government failures in Canada during the pandemic have been attributed to neoliberal ideology and the university is no exception. The neoliberal project throughout the pandemic has been on full display as a feature of higher education governance. By talking like progressive, evidence-based leaders, university faculty, students, and staff are supposed to look past the fact that, in practice, administrators act like regressive, decision-based followers of economic trends, anti-science politics, and political expedience.

Consider instead the following hypothetical scenario: it’s the summer of 2020 and the extent of an unknown, potentially debilitating global virus is just becoming clear. The president of X University states publicly that they believe in the precautionary principle and affirm their commitment to the scholarly process of evidence-based decision-making. President of X University states that should a vaccine be developed, it will be a requirement to attend campus in order to maintain the accessibility of campus for everyone.

Finally, out of an abundance of caution, masks will be provided and required in instructional spaces. After all, X University is an institute of higher education, if X University doesn’t abide by the principles of evidence-based decision making, how can it reasonably argue others should do the same?

Such an honest, clear, and principled position adheres to scientific principles, places the value on the wellbeing of the community, and “put[s] evidence about coronavirus into action.” Further, it mirrors the rhetoric we see on the social media feeds of the leading research institutes in the country. And yet such a statement and the principles that undergird it is becoming increasingly verboten from today’s university administrator. Meanwhile, the rhetoric—about “impactful” scholarship and “the role of research in creating an equitable and inclusive society”—is wearing increasingly thin.

The question that remains is if this is a crossroads for higher education or simply another step down a path towards the diminished and diminishing role of Canadian universities.

Steve Wilcox is Assistant Professor of Game Design and Development at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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