When I started writing this article, the world around me was in limbo. The lives of over 663,740 people had changed due to a deadly outbreak of a virus; a virus most of us had not even heard of just three months ago.
COVID-19 is a severe respiratory disease which is, let me stress on this – not a flu, but is characterised by flu like symptoms which in its most deadly case can cause severe pneumonia leading to death. It is highly contagious, as we all know well by now. There is no vaccine available yet, though many are in trial. The only way out is extreme precaution armed with physical distancing.
To abide by these new rules of distancing, almost every workplace, other than “essential” workers, have asked their employees to work from home. While this has slowed down work and affected economies drastically, there is simply no other way out till the number of positive cases drop.
Sadly, many scientists who work at laboratories, graduate students and postdocs alike, are being made to report to work every day. I am not talking about scientists who are looking for a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, I am talking about thousands of other scientists engaged in basic research that can be deferred and who are not working from home.
I am a postdoctoral researcher who is lucky enough to work in a small lab, where distancing is easier with three people in three different offices or labs. However, I have spoken to several members of my community who are not being given a choice.
One of my lab mates told me how his supervisor made him and the other graduate students “essential workers” so that they can continue working on their projects. The issue is: no one asked them if they wanted to work or not. Some of them – despite being scientists – think working from home is merely an overreaction, while others are scared for their life.
A friend of mine who works in Louisiana texted me a few days ago. While it was reassuring to hear that she was healthy during these uncertain times, she seemed far from happy. She is a graduate student and works in a wet lab environment – which essentially means she needs lab equipments to do her research. She is reporting to work every day, even though she doesn’t wish to risk her safety.
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As per recent reports, Louisiana has had tremendous rise in its number of positive coronavirus cases. Universities did shut down for undergraduate students and eventually employees, but research was deemed as essential and not stopped. Once the number of positives crossed 800, my friend, in a state of panic, emailed her supervisors asking how long they would have to continue showing up for work. Her boss responded saying, till “they” give us orders to shut down research, it is business as usual. My friend and I both assumed it means a statewide-lockdown.
If you are not a part of a big research institute you may think that a few people being in the building is enough to maintain physical distance. However, some research institutes – my friend’s in particular – have nearly hundreds of graduate students and 70 odd professors reporting for work. Even if the cases are more concentrated in one city, people travel back and forth for work all the time. When US is grappling with a level 4 spread in the pandemic and hospital workers and doctors are unable to bear the long hours and lack of resources, is it really worth the risk?
At this point the onus is on the university administration. They are aware and, in some cases, permitting research to go on as normally as possible. The employees themselves are not being asked what they are comfortable doing. Since there is no real union in place for postdocs or graduate students, it is not possible to band together in this crisis. Unless our supervisors do better, we will just have to continue on our plight. As Louisiana went into a statewide lockdown on Tuesday with the numbers doubling on Tuesday and Wednesday from 800 odd cases to 1795 positives of which 60 died, it really was not worth the risk. As of now, as per CNN, there has been a spike in coronavirus deaths by 40%.
On Monday, as I was lamenting about the state of affairs, my colleague shut my concerns down by saying, “Well, we can’t panic and not work, we won’t get much done at home.”
I looked at her appalled. She is a scientist too and she thinks we can be exempted. My mind went blank as I heard her say, “We are a small town with all students gone and 100 odd people in our building.” I wondered how many deaths it would take for the country to go into a strict lockdown. I understand there are scientists who would not want their lives to change by the news and continue as is.
However, the time to disregard this growing threat has long been up. When I tried to vent my frustrations with academia and its confusing bureaucracy, most of my non-academic friends who were working from home simply asked if I had spoken to my boss.
The norm in academia is different from industry. You may voice your opinion , but the university is only going to grant you a leave of a week for this virus. For the uninformed, quarantine requires you to isolate for at least two weeks because that is how long the virus takes to show symptoms. Additionally, if you are an international scholar like me, and your visa depends on your supervisor, you cannot take such chances. If you do, you may just be terminated, or your contract may not be renewed citing performance issues. The economy is not in its best shape and such risks can only invite difficulties in an already unstable future where recommendations make or break a career.
However, some of my faith has been restored when I saw some professors introducing flexible hours, where you show up and leave when your part is done. If you are immunocompromised or have underlying conditions, you can take this chance to work at night when no one is around. As I walked home on Thursday after a long seemingly normal day at work where I fought the inclination to check the news every hour, I saw a group of men and their kids playing basketball. The odd sense of normalcy in their game gave me a misguided sense of comfort in a growingly uncomfortable world. But, I knew this was not okay; no matter what, we cannot afford to be social right now. The price is too high to pay.
I can not blame them entirely. The US has grown out of its habit of listening to scientists, especially with the current administration’s stance on climate change. The president himself has been spending his time either arguing with reporters or tweeting his thumbs off. He has gone as far as to call this a foreign virus to pander to his racist supporters and even harped about the recession to try to get people back to work.
However, in two weeks US has gone from being a wealthy nation to one that is starting to collapse under the pressure of this virus. Even though some states such as New York has really increased testing, most still have not done enough. A lack of initial seriousness on the part of the administration has ended up costing people their lives.
Even now, with US being the reigning epicentre, enough clarity is not being offered to many in the society, like scientists doing non-critical work. At a time such as this scientists working in non critical areas of research need to practice better distancing such as staggered hours. The cost of research is a small price to pay with lives and resources at stake.
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