When is the best time to reopen universities?
A vibrant campus beckons me since March, 2020, when educational institutions were closed down across Bangladesh because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus still infects and kills. We, nonetheless, seem to be heading toward a post-pandemic world. Schools have already resumed. I gather from the grapevine that the universities are re-opening soon, too.
My response to such a possibility is cagey. That’s paradoxical, because I wanted universities re-opened sooner than later. I’m persuaded to predict that a re-opened university several weeks ahead is a giant leap toward uncertainty.
I immediately seem to recant from such a prediction as post-colonial scholar Edward Said reminds me in his essay, “No Reconciliation Allowed,” that prediction is not a part of our arsenal as academics. I’m an academic looping through a crushing pandemic. I’m unlike an academic Said had in mind, so that entitles me to predictions and paradoxes.
History shows that pandemics end
I’m tempted to predict that we are near the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. History shows that pandemics end. Viruses can’t mutate indefinitely. The coronavirus has already battered the world for 18 months since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic in March, 2020.
In the meantime, the virus has apparently morphed into four variants: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. The virus can luck into yet another virulent variant in the worst-case scenario, but that seems unlikely.
Viruses need hosts to transmit. The more the viruses linger, the more they lose their hosts for two reasons. For one, an increase in infection also implies an increase in humanity’s collective immunity. People who contracted the virus and survived are the ones with high antibody titers. They are more likely to thwart the virus than those who are not already infected.
That’s what Katherine J Wu claims in her article, “The Coronavirus Could Get Worse,” this past August in The Atlantic. The coronavirus is already significantly disadvantaged against us humans.
Secondly, the vaccines have already rolled in. While the vaccines don’t prevent transmission of the virus altogether, they soften and shorten infections to blunt the virus’s ability to cause death and serious damages.
The rate of vaccination has already far outpaced the rate of infections. The website, “Our World in Data,” claims that about 31.5% of the world population are already fully vaccinated as of September 18, 2021. In some vaccine-wealthy countries, the UK for example, the inoculation rate is much higher -- 68.28% -- as of September 18, 2021, as the Coronavirus Resource Centre of Johns Hopkins University claims.
The vaccines create defenses that the virus can’t easily dodge unless the victims are already immunocompromised. The coronavirus is already in a hostile environment, where unfettered transmission is apparently unlikely.
Therefore, when the vaccination plateaus or the infection peaks, herd immunity begins to set in. We already have made significant strides toward that direction around the globe, both intentionally (ie, vaccination) and incidentally (ie, infection).
An optimist -- and that’s me -- sees no snag ahead under such circumstances to re-opening universities. Unfortunately, however, “Southeast Asia and its population of more than 655 million people could be the next hotspot” for the Delta variant, as a group of scientists caution in the journal Nature Medicine in August this year.
The Delta variant sprouted from India and hopscotched across the globe. We have no reason to believe that the Delta variant that ravaged India would spare us. A recent report by the National Institute of Disaster Management, under the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Indian government, warns against the third wave of the coronavirus that might peak in October, 2021.
Children and young adults who are not yet vaccinated would be particularly vulnerable to the third wave. This prediction applies to Bangladesh to think critically about the right time of re-opening educational institutions.
Already too late or always too early
Paradoxically, though, whenever the educational institutions re-open in Bangladesh, it’s already too late or always too early. The rate of infections and deaths waxes and wanes so regularly -- and unpredictably -- that the authorities have always been in limbo for an informed decision.
Because the vaccines have been rolling in, students, parents, and stakeholders want educational institutions re-opened. Trading off the vaccines for masks and social distancing is consequential. Universities, like nursing homes and prisons, are congregate settings. No university is designed for social distancing.
Imagine that 15,000 students, mostly undergrads, huddle in a campus half the size of a soccer ground. Then they are crammed in musty classrooms. Then they are expected to behave by wearing masks and following other hygiene codes.
Undergrads are known for being rowdy. Preaching them to behave is akin to telling a wildfire not to burn. They would socialize in and around the campus to give the virus a free pass. Under such circumstances, a campus might become a corona cauldron.
It appears that re-opening the universities presupposes vaccinating the students, faculty, and staff. That doesn’t guarantee immunity against the virus. Students are socially connected. When the vast majority of the population outside the campuses are unvaccinated, the virus finds its way into the campuses.
Only 8.77% of people are fully vaccinated in Bangladesh as of September 18, 2021, as the Coronavirus Resource Center of Johns Hopkins University confirms. The first step, then, toward re-opening the campuses is to wait until the levels of community transmission are driven down.
A tough and unpopular choice
Some universities in the US had the delusion to claim themselves as “Covid -19 ready campus” last year, the University of Colorado, Boulder, for example. That didn’t stop outbreaks once it re-opened. And this was not the only university in the US that re-opened and had to shut down weeks later. If we take any leaf from such examples, our best bet seems yet an uninhabited campus in Bangladesh. That’s a tough choice.
That’s an unpopular choice, too. The longer the closure of the universities lingers, the more the political points the government loses. It’s yet one big, bold decision that may have saved hundreds of lives. Humans are not expendable under any circumstances.
If keeping universities uninhabited is a pro-life decision -- and I think it is -- the government perhaps needs to renew it amid pressures and persuasions to act otherwise. Ideally, the government would buy out several months to vaccinate a significant percentage of people across Bangladesh before universities are re-opened, even partially.
This fall, for example, most universities across the US have opted for on-site education. In the meantime, as of September 18, 2021, 55% of its population are vaccinated. The vaccination rate among students, faculty, and staff is even higher.
Universities there also have a plethora of protection protocols strictly enforced. I envision a similar scenario before universities begin to become physically functional in Bangladesh. Otherwise, we drift toward risk.
Paradoxically, zero risk is impossible. In her article, “The Coronavirus is Here Forever: This Is How We Live It,” in The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang claims that the virus will be here for the rest of our lives and that infections are not going to come down to zero.
As dire as such a prediction sounds, we must acknowledge that a closed university is a crisis for the functional democracy that we are. We must explore all the options of re-opening universities. Instead of providing universities a deadline to re-open, providing them a timeframe spanning several months to transition from online to on-site, when the transmission and mutation of the virus are strictly monitored, seems like a rational policy.
A hybrid option
And because the protocols and procedures of online vis-à-vis on-site teaching are different, a rule of thumb should be that if a semester is in session online, it must come to an end online. Shifting from online to on-site mid-semester suddenly is deeply disruptive.
My hunch is that we are almost at the end of the pandemic. Until we indeed are, we can consider on-site education as an emergency option. If students need to come to the campus for research, exams, and experiments, which are not adequately possible online, they must start coming first. Universities must have the autonomy to decide who else they need to cater to on-site, when they triage others. Toward that direction, a hybrid pedagogical option, when on-site and online are blended, merits a critical consideration.
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed universities worldwide into an unprecedented situation, when they have to strike a careful balance between protecting their communities and continuing their intellectual mission. When the communities worldwide are in an existential crisis, the academic pursuit is a fusty luxury. In such a world, universities are redundant.
That’s an absurd world, and that’s the world that French Algerian writer Albert Camus depicts in his novel, The Plague in 1947. It recounts how a deadly virus destabilizes a society riven between compassion and cruelty, fatalism, and human agency, as well as sacrifices and self-indulgences. That’s the situation we are in now.
And that’s a complex situation. Paradoxically, the way out is not. Get vaccinated. Wear masks. Maintain social distancing. Follow other hygiene protocols. Life unfolds. The universities re-open. Despite the paradoxes of the pandemic, I don’t hesitate to predict that we are very close to re-claiming our universities.
I can’t wait!
Mohammad Shamsuzzaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages, North South University, Bangladesh.