As intensive care unit (ICU) beds become more limited and COVID-19 rates spike, the University of Alberta’s plan of action might be too little, too late. However, the university vaccination mandate was, and still is, the only viable option to ensure a safe return to campus for students, staff, and faculty.
As the pandemic rages on, more and more people are losing their lives to COVID-19. With 72.8 per cent of ICU beds being used for coronavirus patients as of September 26 and over 5,000 active cases in the Edmonton area, our hospitals are under immense strain, with complete loss of resources and, ultimately, collapse looking more and more possible everyday. These terrifying numbers are not at all surprising when you learn that the vaccination rate of Albertans between the ages of 20 and 24 are abysmal at best, with only 61.5 per cent being fully vaccinated.
Despite these harrowing statistics and the fear that loomed over students prior to the start of the 2021 Fall semester, the University of Alberta had not released a full plan for a safe return until August 17, which outlined two options for students: vaccination or rapid testing. On top of that, the university established a mask mandate for all indoor spaces. Students were left confused and scared about the future of their studies and health.
As it turns out, releasing a COVID-19 community safety strategy three weeks before the fall semester is not conducive to a safe return to campus. The university failed to provide an adequate plan until September 13, which mandates all students, staff, and faculty to fully vaccinate before November 1. Two days later, the provincial government released the Restriction Exemption Program, and the university then expanded its initial plan by limiting in-person events, continuing the mask mandate, and emphasizing that September 20 is the last day to get your first dose in time, if you want to study on campus.
However, walking around campus, you would not see that stark of a difference between life on campus this fall and that of two years ago. Compliance with the mask mandate varies among all students on campus; sitting in places like CAB, Tory, or the Humanities Centre, many students can be seen not wearing masks, even when they are not eating.
On top of that, masks serve as one of the only protections against COVID-19. There are few protective barriers like plexiglass in many of the libraries or studying areas. Students sit incredibly close together in most classes, especially those in buildings with smaller classrooms, making social distancing much more difficult.
There is no other option for those on campus; vaccination is the only way to remain safe and protected from COVID-19. Failure to provide protective infrastructure has left students, staff, and faculty alike vulnerable and susceptible to the dangers of on-campus learning during a pandemic. I desperately wanted to return to campus after a year and a half of online learning, but I am left scared and desperate for any type of protection.
Even though the university’s vaccine mandate may seem harsh to some, and an encroachment on freedom to others, there is little to be done. Remain unvaccinated at your own risk because the options are limited. You can either vaccinate and stay on campus, while promoting a safe environment for everyone and protecting those who cannot be vaccinated, or you can refuse it, and be bumped to online learning.
The fact is that individual freedom is not as important, nor will it ever be, as the safety of those around you. The current rhetoric is that vaccine mandates and passports infringe on the fundamental rights secured to all Canadians, but that just is not true. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms dictates that you are allowed to have fundamental freedoms until they impact the freedoms of those around you.
I think the university’s ultimatum is fair, considering that this outcome has been a long time coming. They have to have the wellbeing of all those on campus in mind; the needs of the group outweigh the beliefs of a few individuals. While having the freedom to choose is vital to promoting equality on campus, students deserve to have the freedom to go to school safely, and vaccines are the easiest way to do that.
Our healthcare system is under too much duress to withstand any more health emergencies, which are sure to continue if more people do not get vaccinated. Those unable to get vaccinated for legitimate reasons cannot continue to live in fear of COVID-19 because their peers refuse to help protect them.
Although the turnaround will be stressful, with those who are unvaccinated needing to get their first dose before September 20, it is vital that everyone who has not done so get vaccinated right away. Vaccinated students and faculty have the right to work and study on campus, and to do so safely without risk of infection. Even if vaccination is not your first choice, it is the easiest and cheapest way to guarantee safety on campus.