On COVID-19 and Classes

I am sharing a letter that I just sent to my department listserv. If you share my sentiments, please feel free to pass this message to your listserv:

Dear colleagues,

I want to share my personal views and plans for how I am going to respond to the COVID-19 concerns. After today’s class, I am moving all of my classes online.  I want to encourage you to do so too.

COVID-19 is clearly contagious and lethal.  Today, I heard WHO estimates of a 3% fatality rate. That’s greater than the Spanish Flu.  Now, the rate may prove to be far lower once we factor in undetected survivals and the (purportedly) better quality of US healthcare, but the fact remains that this virus is far more deadly than regular flu, and regular flu is itself surprisingly lethal.

Now, many people are quick to point out that otherwise healthy younger and middle aged people seem to fare well in the face of this virus.  First, young people can die of this.  Moreover, this is a communicable disease, and every young person who gets infected can bring that home to someone older or infirm.  These are people too.  Encouraging young people to congregate is to unwittingly ask someone to further risk a vulnerable loved one.

Moreover, Yale’s Nick Christakis points out on Twitter that, even if we cannot ultimately prevent the eventual spread of COVID-19, reducing travel, interpersonal contact, etc. will reduce the pace at which the healthcare system processes COVID-19 cases.  This might ultimately lessen the ultimate impact of the disease.  Institutions like schools can play a role on preventing travel, contact, and transmission.

Many public communications about COVID-19 responses cite what seem like low numbers of cases in New York.  I have no confidence in these numbers.  Unlike places like South Korea or Canada, there is no widespread testing for COVID-19.   Doctors cannot get tests, and there are numerous reports of people with attention-worthy symptoms and travel histories being denied testing.  There has been some sort of failure in the public health system.  For all we know, the virus could have spread far further.  It has certainly spread into the college-aged population, with Yeshiva University closing today. I’m moving forward on an assumption that there’s an outbteak developing here.

To my mind, the proactive decision is to move online now, instead of waiting until you are forced by CUNY.   From what I see, there’s a widespread paralysis.  We don’t know what is going on, and we don’t know what to do.  I actually sympathize with everyone further up the food chain from me.  The higher up you are, the bigger the ramifications of telling everyone to abandon campus.  In some respects, it is probably best for the academics to use their collective power to make the best choice, which is going online.

I want to pass along a wonderful take from our brilliant young colleague Charlie Gomez: Maybe we can find an opportunity in this crisis.  There are so many reasons to get serious about online – both as a personal job skill and as an organizational initiative.  Maybe it is time to get serious about modernizing.

If any of you want to talk about this, I’m happy to have a Skype lunch meeting later this week.


Author: Joseph N. Cohen

Associate Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York, Queens College

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