Thursday, February 3, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
Good morning, and a rather belated welcome to February, Black History Month, the Lunar New Year, and the Year of the Tiger!
“Many unlucky things happened in the Year of Ox, and the pandemic has not disappeared… Finally, the new year is here… full of vitality and bravery.” – David Kang, Director, HoHe Education Group (China)
Apologies for my radio silence for almost a week. It started with a legitimate need to focus my energies on a couple of virtual workshops, for Kwantlen Polytechnic and McMaster. (Those, and two overly-ambitious 2-part deep dives for the Insider last week – into CdnPSE reopenings and OUAC application stats – left me pretty wiped out by Friday.)
I naively thought a weekend off would recharge my batteries, but it merely allowed the backlog in my global newsfeeds to multiply! (Even with some pretty sophisticated AI tools to help sift through global news coverage, it’s a daily 4-hour task that requires my personal attention.) Simply catching UP on that backlog ate half of this week – before I could even start writing!
It’s already Thursday, and I’m particularly disappointed because I had hoped to tackle 5 separate major topics this week, each fitting the symbolism of Groundhog Day. As more days slipped by, the pile of daunting topics grew into an overwhelming mountain of writer’s block – an infinite number of groundhogs, it seemed!
And of course, Black History Month is becoming increasingly important to CdnPSE, adding yet another issue to my logjam. (2015-2024 is also the UN International Decade for People of African Descent, being recognized by Carleton U and no doubt others.) Since I simply can’t juggle this many groundhogs at once, I’ll invite you to check out my issue from one year ago: “White Privilege, Black History, and CdnPSE.”
Today, I’ll just start writing to break the logjam, and see what happens…
Although the beaver is of course the quintessentially Canadian rodent, somehow their collective energy and industry don’t quite capture the experience of this pandemic as well as the groundhog…
Last year on Groundhog Day, I made the inevitable comparison between endless pandemic isolation and unending epidemic waves, and the infinitely looping days portrayed in Bill Murray’s 1993 classic film, Groundhog Day, or Andy Samberg’s 2020 Palm Springs. (I might have added Netflix’s The Good Place, or just about any reality show spawned since COVID19.) The unending monotony of life under lockdown, our time-warping ennui, and the reduction of life’s major milestones to mere shadows of themselves, all have made Groundhog Day resonate with unprecedented poignancy. And as Concordia U film studies prof Matthew Haysobserved last year, COVID19 turned us all into existentialists, facing “the abject absurdity of living through a global crisis you’re powerless to change other than by doing as little as possible.”
I cited Wikipedia last year, to note that the annual forecasts by these furry meteorologists have a record worse than random chance; now Lakehead U researchers have substantiated that claim with evidence from 530 groundhog “observations.” So it can only be our absolute desperation to escape the clutches of a Canadian winter that explains our recurrent obsession with Punxsutawney Phil, Shubenacadie Sam, Fred la Marmotte, or Wiarton Willie. (Naturally, they disagreed yesterday.) Likewise, after 23 months amid the turbulent storms of COVID19, we’re all primed to jump at shadows, and scanning relentlessly for glimmers of hope to signal we might soon be able to emerge from our socially-distanced burrows this Spring.
Holed Up in Our Homes
Ironically, just as the Omicron wave is subsiding and public health restrictions easing, campuses across North America are being forced shut for an astounding range of reasons. Here in Canada, institutions from coast to coast have been declaring snow days as most of the country grapples with an extraordinarily cold and snowy winter. In North Carolina, Wake Forest U cancelled classes and evacuated some students after a fertilizer plant caught fire Monday night. On Tuesday, UCLA pivoted all classes online “out of an abundance of caution” after a former Philosophy lecturer threatened a mass shooting. More than a dozen historically-black US colleges were forced to shut down this week due to bomb threats. And of course, institutions in Ottawa are grappling with the gridlock caused by the “Freedom Convoy,” although the infinite traffic loop at Carleton is doubtless exaggerated.
Add these to the growing pile of reasons, beyond future pandemics – from wildfires to hurricanes and floods– why PSE campuses may have to pivot unexpectedly to remote work and study in the years ahead. We need to preserve what we’ve learned during COVID19, and maintain our hybrid capacities, if we want to ensure academic and operational continuity in times of extreme weather events and political turbulence.
Unlike those furry forecasters, I’m pleased to report that my pandemic prognostications 2 weeks ago (see “COVID19: What Next?”) continue to be pretty accurate…
Canada Sleds Downhill
Although official COVID19 case counts remain unreliable to the point of meaningless, all signs suggest that the 5th wave of infections driven by Omicron is indeed past its peak in much of Canada. Wastewater surveillance by universities across the country suggests that COVID19 is declining in Toronto, although it looks to be resurgent in parts of Saskatchewan, and spiking to unprecedented levels in Regina.
“You still have to come down the other side of the mountain, and it’s a really tall mountain.” – Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist, uToronto
Asia on the Brink
Ironically, those southeast Asian countries that have pursued “zero-COVID” or containment strategies to fight the pandemic (closing borders, imposing quarantines in government facilities of up to 3 weeks, and arbitrarily locking up millions of citizens to prevent spread) are about to face a new reckoning because of the intensely contagious Omicron variant. Cases are spiking in Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore. Indonesia is currently bracing for an Omicron-driven 3rd wave. An Omicron outbreak hit Hong Kong when 2 flight attendants broke quarantine – and were then fired and arrested. About 3,000 travelers and close contacts are being held in a government quarantine centre outside Hong Kong Disneyland. Vaccination rates are low in Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, but to make matters worse, China’s Sinovac vaccine (one of the most common in the region) appears to be “especially ineffective” at stopping Omicron. Time
Thrown to the Wolves
As the Saskatchewan government drops COVID19 tracking in schools, parents say they have been “thrown to the wolves” – but really, that better describes the plight of frontline healthcare workers. Although case counts may be dropping, the mortality lag means that hospitals and cemeteries are still facing their Omicron peaks. Saskatchewan saw a 4x increase in hospitalized COVID19 patients in January, and expects to hit 500 in February (including “incidental” cases). Already they are “underwater.” Alberta is seeing death rates soar to levels approaching last October’s peak, with more child fatalities than ever. (In fact, Alberta leads the countryfor “age-adjusted excess mortality,” according to uToronto infectious disease prof Tara Moriarty. Although Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe calls it “egregious misinformation.”) Facing critical staff shortages, Nursing students have been called in to help in Alberta hospitals and Nova Scotia long-term care facilities. (The Alberta students will be paid, while the NS students will not.) It will take hospitals months to cope with a backlog of non-urgent and elective surgeries, and cardiovascular complications of COVID19 alone are expected to overwhelm heart specialists.
“Our public health teams… are currently underwater. We are overwhelmed.” – Johnmark Opondo, Saskatoon MOH, Jan 27 2022
Studies are continuing to explore the lasting neurological impacts of COVID19, which can extend the “brain fog” reported by many patients into months of attention and memory issues, even without any other symptoms of “long COVID.” (This has obvious implications for PSE students, staff, faculty and researchers.) Oxford researchers report that episodic memory “largely” returns to normal after 6 months, and attention span does so after 9 months. But for the one-third of COVID19 survivors facing “long COVID,” debilitating symptoms including pain, fatigue, shortness of breath and cognitive issues can persist for a year or more – and Omicron may drive a fresh wave of patients.
The Omicron BA.2 subvariant, being called “Son of Omicron” and “Stealth Omicron” by media outlets around the world, has now been detected in 57 countries, and is particularly common in Asia and Europe, where it is starting to out-compete Omicron classic. (BA.2 is “stealthy” because on PCR tests it looks like Delta, not Omicron.) In Denmark, BA.2 has quickly risen to 82% of all COVID19 cases, and appears to be 1.5x more infectious than BA.1 – but at least it seems to show no difference in virulence. Studies are still evaluating its capacity for immune escape, but so far suggest 3 doses of vaccine will protect against BA.1 and BA.2 alike. So far, PHAC reports more than 100 cases in Canada, mainly from international travellers.
Endemic or Pandemic?
Without a doubt, the Omicron variant has vastly accelerated us towards COVID19 endemicity. Most epidemiologists are optimistic that we’ll have an almost normal May and June this year, although what comes next is a “crapshoot.” New COVID19 variants could evolve slowly like Alpha and Beta, or rapidly like Delta and Omicron. Immunity could wane from our January boosters by July. We’re almost certainly looking at seasonal COVID19 recurrences during flu season, and ongoing need for booster shots, antiviral and monoclonal antibody treatments for severe cases. (And those seasonal spikes will vary with the temperature and humidity of different regions.) Some experts anticipate “an epidemic with seasonal waves like the flu,” before COVID19 ever becomes endemic.
“There are different scenarios for how the pandemic could play out and how the acute phase could end. But it’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant or that we are in the endgame.” – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general
With some 3 billion people worldwide still waiting for their first dose of COVID19 vaccine, new variants will almost certainly continue to arise until we achieve global vaccine equity. Omicron was a “wake-up call” that highlights the short-sightedness of national vaccine strategies: an “unmitigated disaster,” in the words of one McGill researcher. The next COVID19 strain, which evolves to flourish in a post-Omicron world, likely won’t be an “Omicron-Plus” but will instead have to evade Omicron immunity, and evolve from a completely different part of COVID19’s family tree. With a genome 30,000 letters long, the number of possible COVID19 mutations “far, far exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe.” And like most human viruses, it will continue evolving for hundreds of years to come.
“What’s next? It’s a crapshoot.” – George Rutherford, epidemiologist, U California San Francisco
“We can’t expect the daughter or son of Omicron to then become the next thing we deal with. It could be something that comes from a different part of the virus’ evolutionary path.” – Jeremy Farrar, president, Wellcome Trust
But of course, we will inevitably face pandemics other than COVID19, too: remember what Anthony Fauci said about us now entering a “pandemic era.” Last month, a team of researchers (with the help of a UBC supercomputer) identified 132,000 RNA viruses – 10x more than were previously known – including 9 new species of coronavirus. Oh, and also last month, Chinese researchers reported a close relative of MERS in bats, which they called “NeoCoV,” that could easily mutate to jump into humans with high contagion and fatality.
OK, I’ve hit my limit for today.
Next time, I want to revisit the reopening of provinces and campuses – with all the concomitant anxieties, frustrations, and protests – as we tentatively emerge from our winter burrows and dare to imagine a sunnier spring.
One more way we’re all feeling like groundhogs!
Of course, PSE marketing campaigns tend to be much braver and more confident than the average timid groundhog. Here’s a recent example…
Carleton U’s latest :90-sec student recruitment spot is shot in widescreen, with dynamic edits and interlaced graphics (probably intended for use in cinemas). Over visuals of bored schoolchildren in class or mindlessly scrolling through their phones, the voiceover dares students to set aside habits, doctrines and assumptions, and “challenge what we think we know. Defy received ideas and conventions. Leave fear behind, and move beyond intention alone.” We then turn to quick-cut scenes of students conducting research, engaging with each other and in off-campus learning experiences, while the announcer promises, “When we challenge the way things have always been done, we can do things we’ve never dreamed of.” YouTube
As always, thanks for reading – and again, thanks for your patience NOT reading for the past few days!
I’ll try to get back to you tomorrow with my next instalment. Meanwhile, stay safe and be well!
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