Friday, April 23, 2021 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and happy 457th birthday to William Shakespeare! (Apparently this is “Talk Like Shakespeare Day” for some.) The Bard of Avon would have felt right at home in a year of pandemic, outdoor performances, massive social inequity and an exodus from big urban centres. (I doubt he would enjoy Zoom, though.)
And also, TGIF! Since starting this newsletter about 13 months ago, I have to admit that Fridays have started to matter a lot more to me: much though I enjoy writing the Insider, there’s a definite sense of relief knowing that I have 2 nights in a row without a press deadline! So I’m usually in a much more upbeat mood on Fridays, and I try to avoid too much bad news. (Believe it or not!)
So I am truly sorry, but I don’t think I can ignore my growing unease this week, or wait until Monday: the pandemic is accelerating in many ways, optimistic plans are being rolled back rapidly, and I fear that the rise of several dangerous variants spells more disappointment to come. Here in Canada, we had a week of beautiful spring-like (even summer-like) temperatures – but then abruptly this week we were buried in snow and freezing temperatures again.
Not only are case counts skyrocketing because of a “trifecta” of conditions, but we’re looking at increasingly contagious variants with the ability to bypass immunity and vaccine protection – including a brand new “triple mutant” in India.
I’ve been ignoring pandemic news this week, since it’s basically pretty obvious to most people: Canada is in the midst of a third wave, the US is worrying about a fourth, and despite vaccination roll-outs, cases seem to be rising…
US Fights a Rising Tide
The US has made incredible progress in its vaccine roll-out, immunizing half of all American adults – but somehow the COVID19 pandemic has barely lost its stride. Back in February, the US was averaging 65,686 new cases a day; 8 weeks and 65M vaccine doses later, the country is still averaging 64,814. The problem, of course, is more contagious variants are fuelling a surge, which the vaccination effort can barely hold back. And the remaining half of Americans are much more vaccine hesitant than the first…
Canada Fights on 3 Fronts
Canada’s 7-day average is now 8,200 new cases, as the third wave exceeds the second thanks to premature reopenings by some provinces. (Cough, Ontario, cough, is 70% of the total.) The country is also battling with 3 variants of concern (VOCs) simultaneously: the predominant B.1.1.7 (UK) variant, with 75,413 cases to date; the B.1.351 (South African) variant, with 463 cases; and the P.1 (Brazil) variant, with 2,853 cases. The UK variant responds well to the existing vaccines, but the South Africa and Brazil variants are not just faster-spreading, but also somewhat resistant to antibodies, vaccines, and natural immunity. (The science is still out on just how big a problem that is.) Recently 2 more VOCs have arisen in California (B.1.427 and B.1.429).
“That trifecta of more transmissible variants that cause more significant illness and proportionally more people ending up in the hospital, rapid reopening that’s providing more opportunities for transmission, and a healthcare system that still hasn’t decompressed from the second wave really puts us into the mess that we’re at right now.” – Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist, Toronto General Hospital
BC Locks Down until July
With COVID19 hospitalizations approaching or exceeding the worst-case models, hospitals are reaching capacity in BC and Ontario, and postponing anything other than urgent procedures. (BC expects it will take until Spring 2022 to catch up with the backlog of tens of thousands of surgeries.) BC has extended its “circuit-breaker” restrictions for 5 more weeks, through May 24, and is imposing new rules today to prevent non-essential travel between communities. Bonnie Henry is hopeful that some restrictions might be lifted by July. But new modelling from Simon Fraser U projects that BC won’t achieve herd immunity so long as children and youth are not immunized – potentially leaving the province under pandemic precautions well into the Fall.
“The pressure on our health-care system is immense right now. We’re at a point where we have seen hospitalization numbers for the first time that are causing this kind of distress and challenges to our health-care system.” – Bonnie Henry, BC Provincial Health Officer
Ontario Retreats (again)
For weeks now, Ontario premier Doug Ford has been asserting confident new measures and then retracting them within days. (Reopenings, closings, patios, playgrounds, you name it.) This week, while in isolation for potential COVID19 exposure, Ford is apologizing for the police measures he announced last week (to universal criticism from human rights advocates and police chiefs alike), and now promising the paid sick-leave program he refused to consider just days ago. Recent modelling warns that Ontario may see as many as 15,000 new cases per day. Although Ford has refused to go there, Toronto and Peel Region have stepped in themselves to shut down workplaces with more than 5 cases. (Better get your Amazon orders in now…)
Pressure in Other Provinces
Although the numbers are orders of magnitude smaller, Nova Scotia has announced “near full-lockdown” for the Halifax region starting at 8am this morning, as the province logged 38 new cases yesterday. (The restrictions will be in place until at least May 20.) Saskatchewan has vaccinated 53% of residents over age 40 with at least one shot, thanks to drive-thru clinics and a simple age-based formula, but now experts are urging the province to concentrate doses on people in high-risk work environments.
Double Mutant shreds India
Back on March 25, I shared the news that a new “double mutant” variant (B.1.617) was on the rise in India. India’s ministry of health fears that its twin mutations confer “immune escape and increased infectivity.” Certainly, India is experiencing record-breaking surges of infection, with >250,000 new cases per day all week, pushing its health systems “to the breaking point.” Medical oxygen supplies are dangerously low across the country, and on Wednesday 22 patients died at a Maharashtra hospital when the oxygen failed.
Double Mutant in Canada
B.1.617 has made it to Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Africa, the US and UK, and now it’s causing concern here in Canada too: testing has already identified 39 cases in BC, and a case in Quebec – in a person already vaccinated against COVID19. (Technically it’s still just a “variant of interest,” but it’ll probably be classified as a VOC before long.) On Wednesday, PM Justin Trudeau told the media that the government would not restrict flights from India – but then last night, Ottawa announced it will suspend international flights from India and Pakistan for the next month (although cases have been arriving here for 2 months already, with at least 11 flights into BC from India in April alone).
OK, that’s all pretty bleak, but if you thought snowfall yesterday was demoralizing…
Now a Triple Mutant??
Scientists in New Delhi report another mutant COVID19 strain, B.1.618, that has 3 genetic mutations and “a major immune escape variant.” Experimental data is still required to determine whether B.1.618 will prove vaccine-resistant, or if it is driving the pandemic explosion in West Bengal. Says Madhukar Pai, prof of epidemiology at McGill U, “we need sequencing on war footing.”
So, with vaccines in short supply, variants on the rise, and much of the country moving into more restrictive lockdowns again, it’s not surprising to hear more and more CdnPSEs backpedalling their plans for Fall. Where we used to hear plenty of confidence about a “full return to campus” in September, and then much wishful thinking about “more in-person instruction and extracurriculars,” we’re now starting to hear talk of a “transitional term” this Fall, and perhaps a more normal Winter term starting in January 2022. This is starting to feel like déjà vu…
Last May, I wrote an op-ed for University Affairs that spelled out the futility of promising students anything other than an online Fall semester, when so much was uncertain. (I called it “Schrodinger’s Semester.”) At that point it seemed clear that promising anything else was likely to be subject to all sorts of forced beyond our control. For the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been feeling much less certain about Fall 2021 than I did about Fall 2020 – but as the bad news “pandemic trifecta” starts to pile up, I’m starting to think that I may well find myself back in the same frame of mind 3 weeks from now, on May 14.
Sorry, but I did warn you this wasn’t a very upbeat issue! Slightly more positive are the many good things CdnPSE is doing to make our planet more sustainable…
Yesterday I gave an overview of CdnPSE engagement with Earth Day, with some serendipitous examples drawn from the media releases I spotted in my RSS and Twitter feeds, media review, and email inbox over the preceding few days. Naturally, I missed as much as I included, and much more flooded out on the day itself…
More THE Impact Rankings
I honestly don’t know how I managed to overlook some universities’ performance in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings… Mea culpa!
Queen’s U placed first in Canada and 5th globally! In fact, Queen’s placed in the global top 10 for 5 indicators, and was ranked #1 in the world for “No Poverty” and for “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.” In part, this is due to programs like the Promise Scholars (for local first-generation students), the Equity Locator Map (of accessible and gender-neutral spaces), and specialized pathway programs for Indigenous and Black students. Queen’s Climate Action Plan is committed to climate neutrality by 2040, and Queen’s researchers are engaged at the Queen’s U Biological Station, the Beaty Water Research Centre, and more. Principal Patrick Deane even published a video announcement (which would have hit my feed, if only it hadn’t been “unlisted.”) He says, “at Queen’s we believe our community—our people—will help solve the world’s most significant and urgent challenges through our intellectual curiosity, passion to achieve, and commitment to collaboration.” Media Release | YouTube
McMaster U placed 14th in the world and 3rd in Canada, as well as first in Canada for good health and wellbeing, partnerships for the goals, and decent work and economic growth. Of particular note, McMaster developed an online toolkit to help other researchers and institutions align their work with the UN SDGs. Education News Canada
I gave Western U some attention for their new climate change major, but they also placed in the top 5% in the THE Impact Rankings: 8th in Canada and 52nd in the world. “Rankings are one way we measure our achievements against our aims as well as in the context of other universities’ work. Probably the greatest value of this reflective activity, though, is that it helps us share valuable ideas with peer institutions and the whole global community, for the betterment of the planet.” Western News
Concordia U placed 62nd in the world, top 25 in 3 categories, and tied as #1 in Canada for reduced inequalities. “In the past year alone despite the pandemic we launched the Next-Generation Cities Institute, our Sustainability Action Plan and the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism, in addition to opening the LEED-certified Applied Science Hub that will support advanced research directly linked to many areas of the SDGs.” Education News Canada
uAlberta placed 64th in the world, ranking highest in “life on land” and “zero hunger” for initiatives including the Botanic Garden’s Green School, Augustana’s Miquelon Research Station, the Dairy Research and Technology Centre, and the Sustainable Food Working Group. Education News Canada
And of course, inevitably, many Earth Day announcements came out after my own Earth Day issue, on the day itself…
CICan released a new position paper yesterday, to highlight the role of colleges and institutes in helping Canada achieve net zero emissions by 2050 through skills training, applied research, living labs, Indigenous knowledge, nature-based solutions, and leveraging their green campuses. “We need ingenuity in the development and teaching of new green skills, seeking new business opportunities for Canadian companies, and innovating scientific and technological solutions within a green economy.” CICan
Brescia UC became the first “blue campus” in Ontario, and the second in Canada, by banning all plastic water bottle sales on campus and recognizing access to water as a basic human right. Brescia is challenging other universities to take the pledge from the Council of Canadians. CBC
Confederation College proudly announced it was the second PSE in Ontario to sign the SDG Accord. “It is critical for us to help lead the way in addressing the urgent social, economic and environmental challenges facing our planet, including climate change and issues like poverty and inequality. We not only want to do our part for our collective future, but also want to inspire our College community, particularly our students and employees, to do the same.” Confed
It’s not higher ed (thankfully), but Fast Company calls it “the worst Earth Day ad of 2021”…
SodaStream is “Woke”
SodaStream likes to boast that its home drink carbonation machines are saving the planet from a scourge of 78 billion empty pop bottles, so they put on quite a show for Earth Day. (Never mind that parent company Pepsi was named one of the planet’s top 3 plastic polluters.) This 90-sec commercial mocks those who think they are making a difference by sharing posts about polar bears on Facebook – from the perspective of Randi Zuckerberg, whose brother runs the social media giant. “Ironies abound as the social network sibling pitches plastic responsibility for a brand owned by one of the world’s major polluters.” Fast Company | YouTube
As always, thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!
Stay safe and be well,
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