COVID-19, the university, and reimagining the common good

Witnessing my university community come together to construct a COVID field hospital made me believe there is still some hope for our educational institutions, and our future.

Last month, volunteers were called to help build a 50-bed field hospital in front of the University of California Irvine Medical Center Douglas Hospital to help medical teams care for the increasing number of COVID-19 patients who could not be placed in the main hospital’s overcrowded wards [Photo courtesy of Katrina Cantwell]

“The UCIMC [University of California Irvine Medical Center] team is seeking volunteers to assist today and tomorrow with the set-up of the medical field hospital in front of UCIMC Douglas Hospital (…) The field hospital is set to go live on 12/29.”

The email came only a few hours after the publication of the latest COVID-19 numbers in California – an 82 percent increase in cases and a 92 percent increase in deaths in the last 14 days.

By that point, the surge in cases had already led to increasingly dire statements from the governor and health authorities as well as frantic editorials and social media posts warning of the COVID-tsunami heading our way for the holidays.

Front-line medical personnel, and the far more numerous other essential workers, who have no choice but to work in overcrowded supermarkets and warehouses with no social distancing and little protection, as well as their worried and proud families and friends, were already aware of the severity and toll of this pandemic.

But when one of the wealthiest counties in the wealthiest state of the wealthiest country in human history needs to call on volunteers to ensure a field hospital outside the region’s only university hospital was built in time to handle the expected “surge on top of surge on top of surge” in case numbers – well, that’s a whole different territory.

Thankfully, given my IKEA bookcase-level construction skills, the field hospital was almost finished by the time I got there, and I spent my time packing up the detritus of four days of intensive construction.

Designed by a Eugene-based company, Deployed Logix, and built on top of at least one foot of gravel to protect against flooding, using the heaviest-duty canvas and tarp-like materials imaginable, it is truly a remarkable structure. The 50-bed capacity field hospital will allow the UCIMC Douglas Hospital medical teams to handle the overflow of COVID-19 while not diminishing their ability to care for all the other patients that continue to arrive to the region’s most important teaching hospital.

As UC Irvine Healthcare spokesperson John Murray explained to me, in the context of the pandemic and the intense political divisions of the past year, “The sense of community we’ve experienced [during the construction of the field hospital] is truly important.”

Indeed, given how so many of us have been self-quarantining and working from home for the better part of the year, this was the first time I’d seen some of my neighbours and colleagues from the university, where I teach history, since the pandemic began. It was uplifting to see so many people leaving the safety of their homes and coming together to help each other and the community at large at a time of unprecedented crisis. When I returned several days later to load dozens of sets of beds, monitors, desks and other equipment into the field hospital, the scale and the stakes of the operation were even clearer.

But that community-mindedness must be measured against pandemic fatigue that is getting worse by the day. As Murray put it with a nod to Churchill, “The vaccine isn’t the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning. Everyone in healthcare understands that this isn’t going to end any time soon,” even as thousands of staff have already been vaccinated.

And it is not only the medical professionals who are aware that we are only at the “end of the beginning” of this emergency.

Teachers across the educational spectrum from Pre-K to universities are also at the front lines of this pandemic, and they well know that the crisis is far from over.

Trying to teach in the time of coronavirus

As a parent and a professor, I know first hand how hard it is to maintain a remote curriculum that is both pedagogically sound and engaging for months on end – and indeed, without any end in sight. It’s even harder to do so when the students are in that age between adolescence and adulthood, and under some of the most intense social, emotional, intellectual and economic pressure of their lives.

For years, I fought hard against remote teaching, like most other professors I know, because I know in most cases it is pedagogically inferior to in-person teaching, and not just in terms of knowledge delivery and acquisition. Students meeting with each other and their professors, and forming bonds that can last a lifetime, is a crucial part of education.

And yet, with the emergence of COVID-19, we have been left with no other ethical choice than going remote and doing whatever is necessary to revamp our courses so that they would reach the hardest to reach students – those unable to attend virtual lectures because they have poor access to the internet or little privacy at home, as well as those struggling with anxiety and other issues that prevent them from remaining engaged in a remote learning environment.

Professors who’ve spent decades developing their pedagogical style had a week or two to learn entirely new skillsets and teaching paradigms. As importantly, we’ve had to lift our game as social workers and therapists, because the first place the extreme stresses of the pandemic was being manifest was in isolated “remote” settings like our suddenly “virtual classrooms”.

Professors are suffering anxiety at rates not far behind students – the pressure of moving online while also dealing with their own health and home issues has taken a high toll on even the most experienced and adaptable teachers. And for the majority of instructors without the security of employment, the immediate post-pandemic future of massive budget cuts, cancelled courses and shuttered programs is career and even life-threatening.

Day after day, week after week, month after month we’ve had to attend Zoom meetings, seminars and classes to learn the newest teaching app or delivery format, or be updated on new regulations for dealing with student participation and grades. All of this in the context of the most polarised political environment and election in anyone’s lifetime, which has been experienced with particular intensity at universities like UC Irvine, which is a federally designated minority-serving university, and has a disproportionately large number of students from historically underrepresented, economically marginalised and immigrant backgrounds.

COVID exposed existing fault-lines

Indeed, the pandemic is not solely responsible for the unbearable stresses currently experienced by most instructors and students. In fact, in many cases, COVID-19 merely exacerbated and exposed the existing fault lines in educational institutions like UC Irvine.

The pandemic, for example, showed that even in a campus geared to educating first-generation immigrants and low-income students, many students can still find themselves under an insurmountable financial burden when an unexpected emergency decimates the kinds of jobs they have to have to support themselves during their education. Before COVID-19, many students were already struggling financially, but the pandemic, and its devastating impact on the economy, made addressing the issue an urgent necessity.

“To do our job in this environment,” as my colleague Doug Haynes, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UCI told me, “the university increasingly, by necessity, has to become an instrument of social welfare and justice.”

Few professors, never mind members of the public, understand just how much energy and resources are needed to create and maintain infrastructures that ensure students thrive rather than merely survive during their undergraduate education.

Increased investment in infrastructure was always needed in education. But with COVID-19 alongside their usual expenses, universities now also need to invest more in mental health services, hire social workers, buy laptops for remote learning and pay huge licensing fees for remote learning applications – at a moment when all sectors of public funding are under great stress.

The pandemic, by carrying many educational institutions to a financial breaking point, exposed how elected officials in the state of California (both Republican and Democrat) have for so long been failing young people by disinvesting from education and not regarding higher education as a public good.

So, the stress currently being felt at universities is as much a result of the state’s failure to provide adequate funds to enable its students to get the education they need and deserve as it is a consequence of the pandemic.

Racial inequality in the education system is another fault line the pandemic exposed.

As the National Academy of Sciences reported this summer, racial inequality is as deadly as COVID-19. That is, the excess deaths that white Americans are encountering during this worst mass-casualty event in a century is more or less at the level of excess mortality that African Americans have faced every year, without end, for the last four centuries.

And in this context, it is not surprising to see that the pandemic and its devastating economic and social consequences also hit students from economically and politically marginalised minority backgrounds harder.

Conservatives can rail all they want against “critical race theory” as the latest root of all university evil, but it comes down to mathematics. If you hollow out communities through decades (in fact, centuries) of discrimination, segregation, impoverishment, state violence and incarceration, you make it exceedingly difficult for families from these communities, never mind individual students, to afford higher education.

When minorities are highly over-represented in prison populations and underrepresented in university populations (and the former costs at least twice as much per year as the latter), it’s impossible not to feel that the State of California, and the country as a whole, has for too long been more interested in arresting, trying, convicting and incarcerating minorities than enrolling and helping them complete their educations at the UC – whether there is a pandemic or not.

And when the very forces of order who have long been the spearpoint of racist and coercive state policies, such as Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, declare repeatedly that “compliance with health orders is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement” as the infection rate surges, while the largely white and wealthy residents of towns like Newport, Laguna and Huntington Beaches walk around, shop and dine as if there’s no pandemic, it can only serve to reinforce just who, in Barnes’ words, gets to “enjoy our most cherished freedoms”.

Contrary to what Sheriff Barnes, President Trump and the more than 70 million Trump voters seem to think, freedom cherished in isolation and against the rights and welfare of our neighbours – that is, the common good – cannot endure.

Sooner or later, and especially when challenged by the stress of calamities on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, such “freedom” will devolve into the Hobbesian “war of all against all” in societies lacking a strong sense of community that transcends racial, class and political differences of its members.

Not only universities, but society at every level, from government to individual citizens, will need to “become an instrument of social welfare and justice” if we are to recover from this pandemic and address the even more catastrophic fault lines it helped expose.

As we head into a new year and a new presidency, whether we possess the collective courage and reason to do so remains a frighteningly unresolved question. The sense of community I witnessed during the construction of the UCIMC field hospital, however, signals there is still some hope for our future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.