As racialized and queer* students, stepping into our respective roles as President and Vice-President University Affairs for the University Students’ Council at Western University during a pandemic was isolating in more ways than one. In addition to the physical distance between us and our team members, there is something disorienting about transitioning into positions that have historically been occupied by straight, white leaders.
Though Western has been built and shaped by whiteness, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, our campus community is home to a diverse and passionate student body that actively challenges and reshapes these forces. Especially over the last year and a half, it’s been inspiring to contribute to the momentum on post-secondary campuses to advance equity work, much of which has been student-driven. Certainly, our university is moving in the right direction; the steady implementation of recommendations produced by Western’s Anti-Racism Working Group and the appointment of Dr. Opiyo Oloya as Western’s first Associate Vice-President of EDI are indications of this progress.
However, COVID-19 has illuminated and exacerbated racial disparities like nothing else. As we return to campus in the wake of the fourth wave of the pandemic, we cannot afford for anti-racist action to lose momentum or become an afterthought.
Make no mistake, COVID-19 does not affect us all equally: Black, Indigenous, and racialized lives are disproportionately impacted by the financial, social, and health crises that the COVID-19 pandemic has created and heightened. The way universities respond to COVID-19 should reflect an understanding of these disparities.
With that in mind, here are some things to consider as we navigate discussions of mandatory vaccines on post-secondary campuses:
Getting vaccinated and practicing allyship go hand-in-hand.
We know people of colour face the impacts of the pandemic with more severity. Experiencing racism puts people at higher risk for COVID-19 infection because of greater exposure and fewer protections; structural inequities in community affluence, health care, food security, labour; and more continue to produce these disproportionate harms. Given how the pandemic has unmasked heightened risk factors for members of Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities, we can think about getting vaccinated as a way of prioritizing the safety and well-being of people of colour. If you have been engaging in conversations over the last year about advancing racial justice and the importance of practicing allyship in daily life, get vaccinated and encourage your networks to do the same. These conversations are only productive if we follow them up with a commitment to enacting this anti-racist consciousness and intervene in the systems that disadvantage people of colour.
Vaccine mandates are not substitutes for education.
Vaccine mandates are important measures for prioritizing the collective safety of our campus communities. However, these measures must be coupled with proactive education on the utility and safety of vaccines. After all, universities are places of learning. For many racialized communities, distrust of the medical system (including vaccines) is the result of a very real history of medical abuse, exploitation, and racism experienced by our families and friends for generations. Racialized peoples, in fact, have been subjected to experimentation of medical and vaccine-related testing in the past, such as the now-infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In efforts to encourage vaccination among hesitant racialized communities, it's important to ensure health care professionals take up culturally relevant and sensitive care practices and create safe spaces for students of colour to ask questions or express concerns about getting vaccinated. A commitment to anti-racism requires us to empower hesitant racialized folks to get vaccinated through information and inclusive education rather than relying solely on mandates.
How vaccine mandates are enforced matters.
Encouraging and enforcing the measures put in place to protect our campuses can easily harm communities of colour. In recent weeks, universities across Ontario have introduced vaccine mandates and the province has announced that proof of vaccination will be required to access certain businesses and settings. However, most post-secondary institutions have been vague about how a vaccine mandate will be enforced. In the absence of clear answers, we have reflected upon a myriad of possibilities, including enforcement by campus police and/or special constable services (CP/SCS).
In recent years, student groups across Ontario have been increasingly vocal about the dangers of unchecked police and special constable forces on our campuses.** We are concerned about how the enforcement of a vaccine mandate, especially if it is carried out by CP/SCS, could impact students. The fraught histories between enforcement bodies and communities of colour mean that students of colour could be put in disproportionately precarious positions. This is not to say vaccine mandates should not be instituted; it is simply a reminder that we must consider race and racism when determining how best to enforce a given mandate.
It is our responsibility as campus communities to consider how the health and safety measures we are implementing affect the most vulnerable members of our population, including Black, Indigenous, and racialized people. Universities need to work together with student government organizations and communities of colour to find solutions that are cognizant of racialized students’ positionalities.
Ultimately, it is important now more than ever to act on the collective anti-racist consciousness that we have been building over the course of the pandemic and prioritize measures that keep communities of colour safe.
*A term used by some LGBTQ+ people to describe themselves and/or their community. Reclaimed from its earlier negative use – and valued by some for its defiance – the term is also considered by some to be inclusive of the entire community, and by others who find it to be an appropriate term to describe their more fluid identities; from https://pflag.org/glossary.
**https://globalnews.ca/news/7073242/mcmaster-students-union-petition-glenn-de-caire/; https://mycesax.ca/campaigns/no-cops-on-campus/; https://thevarsity.ca/2020/06/05/canada-is-beyond-guilty-u-of-t-in-solidarity-as-protests-tackle-police-brutality-anti-black-racism/
Written by USC President Zamir Fakirani and USC Vice-President University Affairs Ziyana Kotadia.