What COVID-19 is uncovering — and what we can learn from it

By Mary Rolfes on March 22, 2020.

Just over a month ago, I contributed to a Michigan Daily Editorial Board article on the COVID-19 outbreak, a piece which primarily warned the community not to panic. In light of recent events, it’s almost surreal to think about sitting in that room now, jokingly passing around hand sanitizer and casually discussing what I then believed to be a novel issue that would not have any major impact on life at the University of Michigan. And coverage did die down, for a time. But now, COVID-19 seems to be the only thing anyone is talking about — and for good reason. 

On Wednesday, March 11, University President Mark Schlissel announced on Twitter that all classes on the University’s three campuses would be canceled for March 12 and 13 and would move to an online format from March 16 through the end of the semester. Events of more than 100 people were canceled, along with all spring and summer study abroad programs. This announcement followed similar decisions by schools across the country, including the University of Washington, Harvard University and Michigan State University. Also on Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a global pandemic as it continues to spread rapidly. Sporting and cultural events — including the 2020 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — are continually being postponed or canceled, and on March 12 Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced all Michigan K-12 schools will close through at least April 5. All of this demonstrates how COVID-19, a story I and many others thought would be lost to the 24-hour news cycle, has rapidly developed to impact life on campus, in Ann Arbor and across the world in a massive and seemingly unprecedented way.

Despite everything that’s happened in the past few days, however, I stand by the original message the Editorial Board published in February — don’t panic. This is easier said than done when it feels like the world is crumbling around you. It certainly seems that way for me. As a junior transfer, my limited time at the University has been cut even shorter and the social network I was growing has been blunted. My spring study abroad is canceled and I won’t be spending this March making brackets or watching games. Of course, COVID-19 is much greater than any individual biography. With this outbreak playing out on such an expansive — indeed, global — scale, broad actions must be taken. Likewise, something widespread is being revealed. This viral event is highlighting the fundamental errors in the way we live and the way our societies are structured. If we pay close attention to what is being uncovered and respond with meaningful action, the COVID-19 outbreak can be a learning opportunity.

The development of COVID-19 has coincided with the 2020 presidential primaries, and one of the key talking points in the goal to unseat President Donald Trump is health care reform. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., argues this outbreak has shown America the necessity of adopting Medicare for All. When a health crisis has the potential to impact everyone, it becomes clear that everyone should have access to high-quality care. While some insurers have pledged to cover the cost of the coronavirus test, the expense of further testing and treatment that will accompany a positive result may prevent individuals from seeking the care they need. Moreover, not everyone has access to health insurance — in 2018, 27.5 million Americans were uninsured. And many of those with insurance have prohibitively expensive barriers to accessing coverage, such as high deductibles, copays and out-of-network costs, all factors which are especially salient given the current economic crisis that has accompanied COVID-19. 

Even long before the outbreak began, the American health care structure has been shaping how this or any other public health concern would play out. Millions of Americans are denied the preventive care and knowledge that could support improved outcomes in a crisis, such as regular check-ups and diagnoses of chronic or underlying conditions. Health care is a human right and no one should be denied the opportunity to achieve their best health — or survive a pandemic — based on their socioeconomic status. COVID-19 has fully exposed the flaws of a largely private insurance market and an overpriced medical system. It has given us evidence of an urgent need to entirely restructure how we design and distribute health care. 

Beyond treating coronavirus, the wide-scale preventative measures enacted to slow the disease’s spread provide a chance at a re-evaluation of how we work in America. Several of the world’s largest companies, including Michigan-headquartered Ford and General Motors, tech giants Amazon and Google and financial firms JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, have instituted work-from-home policies for at least some employees. Like the University, a substantial number of academic institutions are transitioning to remote learning. It seems COVID-19 has finally motivated the world’s largest and most influential institutions to consider policies that disability advocates have been pushing: more expansive, accessible work-from-home policies. These remote policies can spur innovation which will shape a more accessible working landscape for all people of varying abilities. We can discover that it is entirely possible to be productive from home — for some, it may be far more productive than sitting in an office. We can build a more flexible schedule in which productivity is not limited from nine-to-five. We can even reconstruct the concept of productivity, acknowledging the importance of work across the gamut of pay grades and pushing for living wages. 

Of course, not all work can realistically be done remotely — retail and customer service are notable examples. For these roles, we must mandate paid sick leave, as illness should not prevent one from making rent or putting dinner on the table. In customer-facing roles, especially those involving food, people should not be working when sick — for their own health and for the health of others. Across the board, we must normalize the often-chastised concept of taking a sick day. Our current working environment pushes for self-sacrifice for the goal of productivity, but a rapidly spreading and potentially deadly virus is a grave reminder of our limited time and the importance of prioritizing the well-being of ourselves and of others over monetary gains. This outbreak is a call to reconsider how we view work in our global society and to rediscover a healthier work-life balance.

COVID-19 is having radical impacts on both local and global communities, and the ramifications will be felt for years to come, fundamentally changing the way we live. And where there is change, there is opportunity. It’s absolutely justified to feel like the world is falling apart and to have the associated panic for a period of time — my now-private Twitter feed is a primary example. But if we adopt a mindset of acknowledging the flaws of modernity which COVID-19 has brought center-stage and strive to take action in response, we may emerge from the chaos on the path to a society that is more fair and equitable than the one we had before. In this period of temporary social distancing, it’s especially critical to keep in mind that it’s not me, it’s us. Let’s capitalize on this opportunity to think and act radically for a better future. This contemplative approach is imperative to emerging successfully from COVID-19 — along with washing our hands for at least 20 seconds.

 

What we can learn from Korea

By Min Soo Kim on April 13, 2020

As much as I would love to find a different topic to write about, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the only relevant topic that has been updating itself for the past few weeks. The University of Michigan encouraged all students to return to their permanent residence, so I left Ann Arbor to fly back to South Korea last Saturday. When I finally stepped out of the airplane full of people sharing the same objective of reaching their homes after about 14 hours of travel, I could see that my home country was dealing with the whole pandemic situation in a radically different manner.

It usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes to get through the passport control and pick up your luggage at the Incheon International Airport. However, this time it took me an hour and a half. Several teams of airport staff members and public health workers lined up the passengers where they checked if all incoming passengers had downloaded a self-diagnosis tracking application on their phones. I was given more than enough information and explanation regarding the application and the need for us to download it to keep track of our health. Then, when I finally reached the actual checkpoint, a public health official checked my temperature with a simple electronic thermometer. I recorded 98.6 degrees and was given a piece of paper that read “quarantine certificate.” I was then asked to fill out brief paperwork that asked for my address and phone number. When I asked the officer collecting the paperwork what this was for, he kindly answered that the Korean government newly mandated all its returning citizens to practice self-quarantine for 14 days and those pieces of information were needed for the local government of my residence to check on my status. Out of curiosity, I then asked if there would be legal repercussions if I broke the self-quarantine and the answer was, as expected, yes. Noncompliance to the self-quarantine order is punishable by up to a year of imprisonment or a fine up to 10,000,000 won, which is equivalent to almost $10,000. 

South Korea had two unique strategies dealing with COVID-19 that the United States did not. The first was testing. Korea was much quicker to react to the global health crisis when compared to many other countries, partly because of its past experience with Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. As soon as the first confirmed COVID-19 case from China was announced, Korean companies jumped in on developing test kits. Beginning in late February, soon after the Lunar New Year holidays, Korea started to develop the capability of testing about 20,000 people a day and now has about 10,000 tests run per one million people, which is the highest confirmed data among all affected countries. 

The second strategy was heightened, yet relatively well-accepted, surveillance on citizens. This does not mean that the Korean government wiretaps phone calls or collects all private information to track certain individuals down. Rather, the government effectively utilized the recent trend of cashless transactions and spiked use of smartphones to track people who came in contact with a confirmed patient. Korea has the highest proportion of cashless transactions and one of the highest phone ownership rates in the world. In addition, the government was able to successfully trace those in mandatory 14-day self-quarantine; the application I was told to download upon arrival was not only for self-diagnosis reporting but also for location tracking to notify the designated local government official if I leave my self-quarantine spot. The designated local government official calls me every morning to check if I am still in my self-quarantine spot and asks if I am showing any symptoms. Korean citizens, including myself, do not have much problem with being possibly traced or receiving phone calls from the local government every morning. Except for some outrageous cases of noncompliance to the self-quarantine order, including a South Korean student traveling to Jeju Island with her mother a day after arriving in Korea from the U.S., most citizens are taking social distancing fairly seriously. 

I am certainly not an expert in biomedical industries of either country but I doubt the U.S. lacks the technology or capital to develop testing kits. One of the crucial differences between Korea and the U.S. was the government’s attitude. President Trump dismissed the potential severity of the virus when it first emerged as a global health threat while consistently labeling it the “Chinese Virus.” President Trump had also poorly reorganized the National Security Council (NSC) so that it was not fit to react to pandemics like COVID-19. The Obama administration had done the same but restored the original NSC structure after going through the Ebola crisis in 2014. In addition, the Trump administration was recently found to have told the federal agency to classify COVID-19 deliberations, keeping crucial information like the scope of infection and quarantine restrictions from the public. While Korea learned from MERS in 2015, it seems as if the U.S. did not learn much from Ebola in 2014. 

I am not saying the U.S. should implement such a strict enforcement on self-quarantine and social distancing without much consideration. Americans could certainly react differently than Koreans if they were legally obligated to not leave their homes and local government agents kept track of them constantly. However, given the recent trend of ever-increasing cases, some form of mandatory social distancing does not sound too egregious. The disease is not successfully being contained, especially in Michigan where the cases only continue to rise. Maybe the society as a whole should consider a hard-hitting method like that of Korea to possibly bring the curve down.

 

From the Daily: Winter rush, a step in the right direction

By The Michigan Daily Editorial Board on March 29, 2018

 

The University of Michigan recently announced that it would transition to winter rush for social Greek organizations, starting in the 2019-2020 academic year as part of a plan to improve the first-year experience. The new plan requires students to have completed at least 12 resident credit-hours and to be in good behavioral and academic standing before they can participate in the rush process. The change will affect about 2,000 students annually according to an email sent by E. Royster Harper, vice president for Student Life on March 21st.

The change comes following a two-month self-imposed ban on social activities by the Interfraternity Council after reports of hazing, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as allegations of sexual misconduct. The Zeta Beta Tau fraternity’s national organization also revoked its chapter at the University for violating multiple policies and endangering its members. We believe this policy change is a step in the right direction toward creating a Greek life system that exists to improve the university experience of students, especially freshmen, instead of detracting from it.

The decision by the University will be most beneficial to the new freshmen class and allow its members more opportunities to become better acclimated to their campus community. Being a new freshman can be daunting, and the question of whether or not to join social Greek life in the first semester adds to the pressure. When freshmen arrive at college, their first friends are often those who live in the same residence halls as them. As the semester continues, students find themselves branching out and making new friends through their classes and student organizations. This allows freshmen to try various activities and find what they like best.

Fraternities and sororities often sell the experience to freshmen by promising an immediate new group of friends and a great social life. Greek life, however, is an aspect of campus life that requires a large time commitment and could cause new students to insulate themselves within their fraternity or sorority. With this change, students will have more time and energy to put towards the equally important academic transition from high school to college. This will also allow freshmen more time to find out how they want to spend their time on campus without first requiring them to commit to a time-consuming rush and pledge process.

Additionally, the new winter rush process helps new students become acclimated to the drinking culture on campus. As most students are aware, the social atmosphere in college is usually vastly different from high school. The expectations, the amount of alcohol and other drugs available and the number of people with whom students can engage in these activities drastically increases during Welcome Week. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in fraternities, who host the majority of Welcome Week events and provide alcohol for thousands of students every weekend.

There are obvious dangers associated with this newfound easy access to alcohol and other substances, as evidenced by more than 30 hospital transports during the weekend of the Michigan State game and seven during Halloween weekend. With winter rush, students will still go out and experience college life, but will be able to make better decisions about the drinking culture that comes with it, as they would have had time to acclimate in the fall.

There are, however, some concerns about the new policy. Suspending fall rush for fraternities may also simply lead to an informal rushing process that may exclude some freshmen who do not have the right connections. This “underground rush” would also be completely unregulated by the University, though one could possibly argue that currently the University has very little oversight regardless.

Lastly, this decision also could unfairly affect multicultural fraternities who provide a unique space for the members of their respective communities. When minority students arrive at the University’s predominantly white campus, multicultural Greek life can offer a support system that the transition to winter rush could threaten to delay.

Overall, however, the change to a winter rush process is a strong step by the University to improve the first-year experience and limit the insularity of Greek life on campus. Freshmen will have an opportunity to explore their interests and make better-informed decisions about their social life and future involvement in student organizations. And, in the face of recent controversies surrounding Greek life both on campus and nationally, lifting some of the pressure to join the Greek community freshmen often face could have long-lasting benefits.

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