Over the last ten days I’ve been slowly recovering from my first encounter with Covid. I’ve started writing this post on the tenth day since my symptoms emerged, though it’s only been five days since my first positive test. Apart from 24 hours when I was worried by increasingly bronchial coughing, it’s been a relatively mild experience. Blocked nose, sore throat, no energy, aches & pains plus the aforementioned coughing. At this point I’m coughing very occasionally, as well as feeling like basic tasks are twice as mentally & physically demanding as they used to be. It certainly feels like I’m recovering rapidly, though I’m aware it’s the first time since a bad case of the flu in 2019 that I’ve been inactive for days. Even with a lot of television over this time (turns out Stark Trek Discovery is far better than I imagined) it’s given me valuable time in which to think, not least of all about the pandemic and higher education.
I’ve been thinking about Long Covid a lot in the last few days. In part this reflects a vague familiarity with the data which has emerged over the last two years, with the ONS identifying 1.7 million people living in private households (2.7% of the population) who self-reported Covid symptoms persisting for over four weeks which were not explained by anything else. This includes 784,000 people who first had Covid over a year ago and 74,000 people at least two years previously. 322,000 people reported their capacity to undertake day-to-day activities has been “limited a lot”. This data was released in April 2022 and doesn’t include the record levels of infection currently found across the UK. This would suggest there’s another wave of long covid coming, even if the interactions between vaccines and variants remains unclear in terms of its long term impacts. A meta analysis of 57 studies encompassing 250,351 patients with Covid found that more than half suffered at least one long term health consequence six months after the infection. The outlook for those who were hospitalised during their illness seems particularly bleak. As the authors of this study observe, these “effects occurred on a scale sufficient to overwhelm existing health care capacity, particularly in resource-constrained settings”.
The other reason I’ve been thinking a lot about long Covid during this time is the number of friends and colleagues who mentioned an experience of lingering fatigue to me, pointing out quiet suffering which in many cases I didn’t notice. At the time of writing, it feels like I’ve gotten off lightly but it’s left me preoccupied as to what the longer term implications of this will be for higher education. The government has described the current situation in the United Kingdom as ‘living with Covid’. In practice this means the removal of interventions and surveillance in order to simply ignore the virus, with increasingly transmissible variants circulating through the population without inhibition. Under these conditions it seems inevitable that the numbers suffering from long covid will only continue to grow, raising the question of how different sectors will cope what has been widely described as a mass disabling event.
This question left me thinking back to something which Anna Ruddock wrote in a special section of The Sociological Review’s website on Chronic Illness in the Academy:
The competition among talented early career researchers for short-term contractual positions, and the minimum requirements employers can now demand, has become absurd. Its pursuit jeopardises the wellbeing of the healthiest applicant, but for a chronically ill person whose life is patterned by relapse-recovery-relapse, the potential damage is the stuff of abiding fears.https://thesociologicalreview.org/collections/chronic-academics/making-visible-chronic-illness-and-the-academy/
It strikes me how little the health of staff and students has figured in conversations about the post-pandemic university, as if the only danger the pandemic posed to well being lay in the initial viral infection. The explosive growth of another chronic condition comes at a time when staff are already at breaking point while a cost of living crisis makes the precarious labour on which the sector depends even more unliveable. Furthermore, as Ruddock puts it, the “intersection of illness with race, gender, sexuality, and class dramatically multiplies the structural impediments to human thriving in the academy”.
Please get in touch if you’d be interested in writing about these issues.
Universities should design work, research and study taking into account how staff and students will have times when they have to reduce their workload, for reasons of illness, disability, work, family or other issues. There should not need to be one off provisions for a pandemic. It should be part of the routine to be able to work or study from home, & at a lower intensity, when needed.
In 2008 I gave up giving conventional lectures, and moved my teaching online. https://blog.tomw.net.au/2008/08/my-last-lecture.html I then spent much of the time up to 2020 learning how to do this well. As part of this I stopped using examinations as a form of assessment. By late 2019 I had a reasonable idea how to teach this way, presenting a paper on how to blend and flip education (Worthington, 2019). Also I had floated the idea of fully online contingency in case of an emergency: https://portfolio.elab.athabascau.ca/user/tom-worthington/conclusion
One benifit of working and studying mostly online is greater flexibility. Due to my learning design, neither myself, nor my students, needed to be in a particular place at a particular time. I was able to work for and study at multiple institutions at the same time. After ten years this seemed routine, and I was taken aback in 2020 by colleagues shocked at the idea of suddenly having to work and teach online, asking if it worked and how to do it. While I helped them with a crash ad-hoc conversion, I was stuck by the idea that most of them thought of this as a temporary measure which could be abandoned as soon as the pandemic was over. I suggest universities need to set up for the new normal.
Worthington, T. (2019, December). Blend and flip for teaching communication skills to final year international computer science students. In 2019 IEEE International Conference on Engineering, Technology and Education (TALE) (pp. 1-5). IEEE.