Six lessons U of T experts hope we learn from the pandemic

A solitary man walks past a sign in Parkdale, Toronto that reads "we're all in this together"

(photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. However, it’s been with us long enough to clearly expose fault lines, inequities and deficiencies in virtually every sector of society. As a result, many have concluded there is a need for a “new normal” rather than a return to the status quo. 

But what should that new normal look like? What lessons have we learned – or should we have learned – from the pandemic? 

Writer Chris Sasaki, of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science, recently put those questions to a range of experts at the university.

Sylvia Bashevkin, professor in the department of political science in the Faculty of Arts & Science

In mid-March, I wrote an op-ed for the Toronto Star about the challenges facing social cohesion in Canada. Four months later, our circumstances seem promising and, at the same time, threatening.

People have come together in remarkable ways to help each other. Some public officials have demonstrated insightful, principled leadership. Yet, inequalities along the lines of gender, race, Indigeneity and social class continue to drive citizens apart, making us distrust the core institutions that need to operate effectively at times of crises. We see protesters gather to deny the concept of a public good. They oppose mandatory mask rules and defend supposedly inalienable rights to haircuts and shopping.

These elements reflect profound tensions that threaten the foundations of liberal democracy in Canada. We must remember that collective thinking and action are crucial to protecting human health and the concept of a public good.

Sunit Das, associate professor in the department of surgery in the Faculty of Medicine, faculty associate at the Centre for Ethics

This moment – of the COVID-19 pandemic, of the #MeToo movement, of Black Lives Matter – has required all of us to consider what we as a society mean by fairness and equity, to consider the possibility that our society is fundamentally built on a foundation that capriciously compromises both for many of its constituents.

In medicine, fairness and equity are comprised by the principle of justice. Unique among the four pillars of medical ethics – along with beneficence, non-malfeasance and autonomy – justice looks beyond the individual patient before us and requires us to consider our duty as physicians as a duty to society.

The disproportionate cost of COVID-19 to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, elderly and disabled patients is a matter of justice. It is our duty as physicians to address the forces that allowed and continue to foster the unfairness and inequity made manifest by the pandemic in society and medicine.

As physicians, we have often proved ourselves to be upright stewards of beneficence, non-malfeasance and autonomy. We must remember that we are as bound by our duty as stewards of justice.

Miriam Diamond, professor in the department of Earth sciences in the Faculty of Arts & Science

Returning to pre-pandemic conditions – without learning from it – will condemn us and future generations to conditions beyond those we now face due to climate change, including uncertain and precarious health, social inequities and insecurity.

Like the pandemic, climate change is estimated to cause deaths, illness and displacement, accompanied by a very large economic price tag for both Canadians and 99 per cent of global citizens.

The good news is that we as a society can adapt our behaviour and practices according to advice given by experts, as we have done during the pandemic. To do this, we need to acknowledge the dire threat posed by climate change and plow government and private sector funding into decarbonized technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase our global competitive advantage.

We need to exploit the lessons learned from COVID-19 to create a sustainable and equitable new normal for all Canadians and be a beacon to the international community.

Ito Peng, professor in the department of sociology in the Faculty of Arts & Science, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy

The most important lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic are the importance of having a good long-term care (LTC) system, the value of care and the consequences of the precarious status of care workers.

Canada’s LTC homes have done a spectacularly bad job in caring for our older citizens. We top the chart in COVID-related deaths in LTC homes, accounting for over 80 per cent of total deaths compared to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country average of 42 per cent.

Years of neglect and chronic underfunding have resulted in inadequate and low-quality services for the residents and terrible working conditions for care workers. The shift towards a private, for-profit-dominated LTC market have been incentivized by bad policies and weak regulations and created low-wage and poor working conditions for care workers.

After COVID-19, we must build a better regulated universal public LTC system that will provide better quality care and better training and pay for care workers.

Irene Poetranto, senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy

Although the coronavirus does not discriminate, its consequences do. Marginalized groups that are vulnerable to prejudice have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19.

Singapore and Thailand saw a jump in COVID-19 cases among low-wage migrant workers. Online attacks and offline harassment against LGBTQ2S+ persons increased following coronavirus infections from Seoul’s Itaewon district, a popular spot for LGBTQ2S+ people in South Korea. Remote mining sites in Indonesia and the Philippines have become COVID-19 transmission vectors, endangering local communities and Indigenous Peoples.

In responding to COVID-19, governments have relied on the military and police to enforce physical distancing and used surveillance mechanisms and pervasive data collection for contact tracing – all of which heighten the risk of human rights violations.

As the pandemic continues to turn public health into a security issue, we must ensure that the post-COVID-19 new normal is not one where a crisis of human rights and rule of law is normalized.

Matti Siemiatycki, associate professor in the department of geography and planning in the Faculty of Arts & Science, interim director of the School of Cities

The pandemic has disproportionally affected lower income, racialized and crowded communities – for example, in the inner suburbs in the northern part of the GTA. It has revealed more clearly our affordable housing crisis, as well as the damaging impacts of precarious employment. We’ve seen transit routes in the inner suburbs that are overcrowded despite the fact transit ridership declined drastically during the pandemic.

The pandemic has revealed – and in some cases accelerated – the shortcomings and cracks in society in terms of inequality of opportunity, public services and infrastructure that existed before.

So, we really need to respond to those challenges and change how we’re doing things. The new normal has to be different. We need to build back better, do things differently, respond to the health challenges that have arisen from the pandemic. The housing crisis must be addressed and conditions improved for low wage workers. And we need to do things like improve bus service in the inner suburbs, invest in dedicated bike lanes and make the city more walkable and not so dominated by cars. 

In short, we need to rebuild a society that's more equitable, sustainable and just.

Faculty of Arts & Science