The Bar-On Brief: Coronavirus has brought societal flaws to the fore

The Bar-On Brief: Coronavirus has brought societal flaws to the fore

COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, has taken the world by storm. It has disrupted lives around the world like almost nothing that came before it. On college campuses, study abroad programs and spring break trips have been canceled, large group gatherings have been suspended and, soon, classes may transition to being virtual only.

The most fearful aspect of this new virus is fear itself: It’s the unknown nature of the virus, its rapid infection rate and its unidentified cure that’s been causing the media frenzy and global panic that’s tanked the stock markets.

I am hopeful that we will overcome this frightening period. Whether medical professionals develop a vaccine or successful quarantines effectively prevent the virus’ spread, the world will get through this. Of course, it won’t be without a cost. Previous worldwide pandemics in recent memory, including the Zika, Ebola, Spanish flu, and the 2009 swine flu killed millions of people in total.

There are a few lessons we’ve already learned from the outbreak. First, we must unite. Ordinary reason would hold that a common enemy unites those who wouldn’t otherwise be allies. The current response to coronavirus hasn’t completely affirmed that logic. While President Donald Trump has yet to declare the outbreak an emergency and call for a united response, even going so far as to call it the Democrats’ “new hoax,’’ opposing politicians have been quick to use the outbreak for political points.

Candi Cdebeca, a city councilwoman in Denver, shared a since-deleted tweet that read, “For the record, if I do get the coronavirus I’m attending every MAGA rally I can.” And a New York State Assembly staffer shared a message on Facebook advising people to avoid Asian-owned businesses.

The second lesson, specifically aimed at college campuses, is to rethink our illness policies.

Professors must be more accomodating. In many courses, students simply cannot afford missing a day or more of classes, for fear of their grades dropping; in turn, they force themselves to attend lectures, consequently spreading illnesses to their peers.

The popular Instagram page “Overheard University” accepts submissions of quotes students hear on their campuses across the country. Last week, a professor’s quote from USC made the cut. According to the post, the professor said the following: “Only documented medical illnesses count for absences. I hear people are worried about the coronavirus and I don’t care. The only reason I want to hear for why you can’t come to class to turn in your paper on Thursday is that you were hit by a bus while reading about the virus spreading.”

While there is no way to know whether this particular professor jokingly or seriously made this comment, the point still stands: The University must revisit its guidelines on excused absences.

The Daily Trojan reported on Jan. 31 that the cinematic arts school would no longer distinguish between excused and unexcused absences in the spring semester, and that each absence would decrease a student’s grade by 10% after the second absence. On Feb. 2, the Daily Trojan reported that the University updated its attendance policy and allow exceptions for exceptional situations such as family emergencies.

Putting aside the blatant intolerance of religious and familial obligations this rule brings to USC, the coronavirus
outbreak shows logically why it’s simply a bad policy. Hopefully, the University realizes the absurdity of implementing online classes to promote student safety and forcing sick students to attend class to promote student discipline.

In times like these, when the most we can do is maintain healthy hygiene and limit our contact with symptomatic people, our time is best used to consider future implications of this outbreak. In the meantime, for those of us on the receiving end of University and government directives, we ought to consider improvements to the way our society is currently structured. Because while this state of emergency will eventually attenuate, it exposes deep flaws in the community. And, as much as I hate to say it, coronavirus will not be the last of its kind.

Shauli Bar-On is a junior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.

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