Pandemic commentaries by first-year writing students

 When asked to contribute to this month’s newsletter, I knew exactly who to feature. In the Spring of 2021, I asked (though maybe “required” is a better word here) my first-year writing students to develop their own commentary piece on the pandemic.
To encourage those students to explore their interests and create their own research space, I left the topic open-ended. The only true requirement, at least in terms of topic selection, was that their commentary revealed a silver lining of sorts. How could the students envision the pandemic as a catalyst for positive change? Which issues have come to light as a result of Covid-19, and how could the post-pandemic world become a better place?

Even as I read these again, a year later, I still admire the prescience and foresight demonstrated in these pieces. This is only a small selection from very few students, though there are several more deserving of the limelight. Without any further preface, here's what they had to say:

Shania Pereira on the long-term effects of PPE waste on marine environments:

According to Aravind and Karthick (2020), once the COVID-19 litter enters the marine habitat, there are generally three ways in which they can affect aquatic life. They are entanglement, ingestion and interaction. The first and the most common occurrence is that of entanglements. Entanglement cases among marine life have risen by 40% in the last decade, as per to a study by the Convention on Biological Diversity (Aravind & Karthick, 2020). Almost all PPE kits are equipped with elastic straps for protection which can pose as a serious threat to marine animals as they often get entangled in these straps and are unable to escape leading to death by starvation. Another cause of concern are the increasing cases of plastic ingestion among marine animals. According to studies, over 233 marine organisms have been reported to ingest plastic in some form or another (Aravind & Karthick, 2020). There are numerous incidents of marine life species from freshwater fishes, whales, crabs and even octopuses that have ingested face masks and gloves especially in the United Kingdom and it had had lethal effects on them (Hiemstra et al., 2021). Lastly, the growing disposal of COVID-19 litter into the oceans has also impacted the structure and functioning of the marine ecosystem, thus hampering primary productivity, resulting in either eutrophication or anoxia. According to a recent report, plastic debris in various forms have been rising at an unprecedented pace in the Indian Ocean in current years, which has triggered a few lasting changes in the marine environment (Aravind & Karthick, 2020). These events only serve to demonstrate that, as mentioned earlier, the very materials that are designed to protect us are proving to be detrimental to the animals around us.

As new variants continue to emerge, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to linger for a while which is only bound to aggravate the already existing marine pollution situation. Therefore, it is the need of the hour for us to take actions against this issue. International organizations have taken the first step in this direction by launching new projects like the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration to put the ‘Blue Recovery’ on the international agenda (Coll, 2020). However, this is not enough. The real change starts with us. If every individual decided to take a small initiative in solving this crisis, we could surely combat this issue. These initiatives urge people to snip the straps off face masks and cut up disposable gloves before discarding them, in order to avoid animals being entangled. The use of reusable PPE’s is also being encouraged in many countries. Research shows that reusable textile systems provide far better environmental profiles when compared to disposable textile systems, therefore, implying that reusable PPEs have a substantial environmental advantage (Aravind & Karthick, 2020). According to the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, making a switch to reusable PPE’s would result in a 95% reduction in waste (Hiemstra et al., 2021). On a larger note, the government can also take various steps towards tackling this affair. They can do so by raising awareness among its citizens and enacting strict legislation to curtail the rampant and illegal disposal of such waste (Aravind & Karthick, 2020). All these measures are a starting point to fighting a larger battle.

Aravind, N., & Karthick, B. (2020). COVID-19, Personal Protective Equipment and Environmental Health. Journal of Dental & Oro-facial Research, 16(2). http://www.jdorjournal.com/pdf/archives/August2020/14.pdf

Coll, M. (2020,). Environmental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic from a (marine) ecological perspective. Ethics in science and environmental politics, 20. https://doi.org/10.3354/esep00192

Hiemstra, A., Rambonnet, L., Gravendeel, B., & Schilthuizen, M. (2021). The effects of COVID-19 litter on animal life. Animal Biology, 71(2), 215-231. https://doi.org/10.1163/15707563-bja10052

Daniel Pešek on the mental state of health care workers:

As the number of patients has risen dramatically, health care workers found themselves under extreme pressure which only increased both physiological and psychological risks. These are most likely due to health care workers being frequently exposed to infected patients and this sense of being in constant danger has negative consequences for their mental wellbeing (Galbraith et al., 2020).

Some readers may challenge this view by insisting that nearly everyone’s mental state is in disarray due to the current situation and therefore medical workers should not any special attention nor treatment. They might claim that by giving these professionals’ mental wellbeing excessive attention we might neglect other, regular people who might need that help much more. Additionally, they could present an argument that medical workers should, by the nature of their profession, be much more resilient to stressors and be more capable of overcoming their negative influences than a regular, non-medical human being.

Proponents of these arguments are certainly right to argue that the attention that mental health of healthcare workers should not overshadow needs of common folk. But they exaggerate when they claim that these workers have much greater tolerance to stress simply by the nature of their work as that is definitely not the case. This can be evidenced by a study where Huang et al. (2020) evaluated mental health of Chinese healthcare staff of wards that treated COVID patients and found that vast majority of them had higher anxiety scores than other, non-covid related medical workers. What was also interesting in that study was that, unexpectedly, younger workers were handling the anxiety worse than their older counterparts. While some might assume that, since medical workers are not constantly locked at their houses as they are needed in the hospital where they can meet and chat with other professionals, research indicates that this is not the case and, for instance surgeons, have been just as badly impacted by the isolation along with increased demand for their services which can have detrimental impact on their mental health along with their performance (Balasubramanian, 2020). It is an irrefutable fact that these workers need just as much, if not more assistance in healing of their mental scars.

Balasubramanian, A., Paleri, V., Bennet, R., & Paleri, V. MS. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of surgeons and coping strategies. Journal of the Sciences of the Head and Neck, 42(7), 1638-1644. https://doi.org/10.1002/hed.26291

Galbraith, N., Boyda, D., McFeeters, D., Hassan, T. (2020). The mental health of doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic. BJPsych bulletin, 45(2), 93-97. doi:10.1192/bjb.2020.44

Huang, J. Z., Han, M. F, Luo, T. D. & Zhou, X. P. (2020). [Mental health survey of medical staff in a tertiary infectious disease hospital for COVID-19]. Chinese Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Occupational Diseases. 38(3), 10.3760/cma.j.cn121094-20200219-00063

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