Letter to the Editor: An open letter to Philomena Mantella regarding COVID-19, misinformation


Courtesy | Chloe Harpst

Chloe Harpst , Student

President Philomena V. Mantella, 

I, Chloe Harpst, a Grand Valley student, would like to draw attention to ways in which this pandemic has divided the student body, and present my input on how to unify and make it through COVID-19, stronger together. 

I want Grand Valley to be aware of the way some of their students are representing the university, and reacting to conversation about the pandemic. Each and every one of your students has the potential to go out into the world and be a leader. Whether that is as a healthcare professional, a manager, a CEO, a city council member, or a teacher, all of the leaders in the country right now have choices to make, and a responsibility to ensure their patients or employees or neighbors are taken care of. Leaders have a responsibility to have the interests of their people in mind. Leaders have a responsibility to be selfless and advocate for the common good of our society. 

Grand Valley State University is the vessel in which we are navigating to enter the world and workforce as independent people. The world is hurting a lot right now. You have the power and responsibility to steer each of us into making the world a better place. 

Recently, a GV student posted on the GVSU Class of 2021 Facebook page about his concern of the danger of returning to in-seat classes. In came comments arguing the validity of the shutdown, and the reality of the severity of this illness. 

One could argue that the lack of strong leadership of the country has led some of the public to believe misinformation about COVID-19. It is not “just like a common flu” (One commenter, who happens to be a health student at GVSU), it is highly contagious and our death toll is growing. It is a fact that it has a much higher infection rate and death toll than the flu. It has not “been blown out of proportion”, if anything, one could say the opposite. Donald Trump says we have this “under control”, while the White House COVID task force says 18 states should be shutting back down, reverting to Phase 1. We also know that The White House has recently decided that hospitals now have to report to a private source rather than the Center for Disease Control, taking transparency away, considering this issue has been highly politicized. 

Multiple students on just this one post firmly believe harmful misinformation about COVID and are more than willing to argue. From an educational standpoint, we should derive our opinions from gathered evidence from reliable sources, especially when it comes to being in a profession that handles the lives of others. As our educator, GVSU should be stressing that we stay educated and up to date, and work to come together on the topic of COVID. 

One commenter, the health student, wrote that the virus has been blown out of proportion and that people will die whether we are online schooling or not. This student is minimizing mass death and ignoring the fact that the magnitude of the death toll is preventable. She also goes on to say “I went into healthcare to save lives, but unfortunately it’s impossible to save everyone… Healthcare workers in GR where I live and go to school and work are not nor have they been overwhelmed.” This student thinks that the virus has been blown out of proportion but that is only from her perspective. If she traveled to Texas to see the refrigerated trucks sent to serve as temporary morgues, the second time these trucks have been used since the pandemic began, maybe she would feel differently. As a healthcare worker, it is vital to be aware that your experiences are not universal, in order to keep personal biases out of hospitals. 

One other student wrote, “Dying is a part of life and you can’t save everyone that’s impossible. I’ve accepted that and I’m okay with taking risks for my body with everything I do because they are my choices,” going on to say that those who fear getting sick should be more cautious, but they should not dictate how she wants to live her life. Reading this simply broke my heart. What the student said shows they are completely unable to empathize with people like me who are immunocompromised. It shows that she prioritizes her own autonomy over public health and safety. She says she is okay taking risks for her body, and fails to acknowledge that those risks endanger those around her. 

Another student stated that this virus has proven to be less deadly than the common flu. This is simply not true- more people have died of COVID in the past 6 months compared to the flu, the transmission is thought to be spread more easily, and there is a lot still left unknown about the virus (Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H.). The thought of returning while some Lakers dismiss this virus as just a flu, despite what the experts have to say, is anxiety inducing, to say the least. 

Multiple students expressed that they think young, healthy folk should be allowed back into universities and workforce while the more vulnerable should stay home. Suggesting that somebody immunocompromised or disabled should simply not go, while healthy people should, is textbook ableism. It is appalling to me that students of this university participate in that. As we know, microaggressions contribute to a bigger picture of ableism. We need to educate students about ableism and condemn it so that we do not continue the cycle of barriers and discrimination. I deserve equal access to an education regardless of the status of my immune system, and comments like these feel opposing to that. Healthy people getting ill should not be minimized either as it contributes to the continued spread, therefore continued quarantine for folks like me. 

Some of what these students have said makes me fearful to return, and shows they have an individualist attitude. We need to combat this mindset and remind students that we are all a part of a body of students, a community. These comments show that some students cannot empathize for the immunocompromised, disabled, and elderly people who attend GVSU who are at high risk, and it is concerning. Never mind the fact that it forces older professors, faculty, and staff to risk their health as well. 

I hope the university will read through the comments on this post and others, see how their students are representing the university, and look at where we could uplift these Lakers to cultivate a more positive, healthy community. People in our community need to understand that this issue must not be politicized any longer- this is a pandemic and the disease does not care what “side” you are on. I urge you to continue to send the firm message that we must do this for others if not ourselves. 

I urge you to address ableism in relation to COVID-19 in one of your weekly videos. Be candid with our student body- COVID is deadly serious, and it is changing things, regardless of whether or not that affects you directly. In this time of uncertainty, we need to all be on board, be empathetic, and listen to the experts. We should accept nothing less of one another. 

I have a few questions for you in regards to all of this. How are you going to address these situations? Misinformation about COVID-19 is harmful, especially when it is being spread by future or current healthcare professionals. Are you working to spread correct information to your students? Will there be any consequences for students in the healthcare field who are actively contributing to the spread of harmful misinformation, or not adhering to guidelines? Surely they should be held to certain standards on this topic, as people you are equipping with the tool they seek to ensure they have human lives in their hands every day. Healthcare workers are on the front lines of COVID-19, which has killed 140,000 in the US so far, and you have students suggesting that it’s not as bad as it seems, or that “dying is a part of life”. 

In our health curriculums, do professors discuss the intersectionality of these issues? The ways in which race, income inequality, and many other factors contribute to healthcare inequality? The fact that COVID does not affect each race and community the same, and why? The ways in which mishandling a contagious disease contributes to the unnecessary spread and high death toll, when the magnitude could have been prevented? 

I am asking that the university take a stand and be anti-ableist, anti-racist, and aware of intersectional disparities in all fields of study. I am asking that the university promote thorough research, from reputable sources, such as the Center for Disease Control. 

I understand that there are things that are out of your control, and that there is a soul crushing weight on your shoulders as a large institution facing an unforeseen situation. But as the key-holders to our future, who made the decision to have in-person courses in some capacity, you need to bear that weight. Many students and faculty are looking to you to make decisions in our best interests. Many more students and faculty are looking for answers that currently seem veiled. 

I ask that you take time to read this over and really consider practical applications of what I have discussed here today. Our community is broken and in need of strong leadership right now. Again, I am not asking for any action to necessarily be taken against these students and their comments, but it must be addressed considering it is harmful to the GVSU community on a page representing GVSU. I want the university to be aware, and prepared for more of it. I want these conversations had with students, started by the leaders of Grand Valley. I want a chance at feeling safe on campus, and it starts with knowing the university leadership is proactive in protecting its immunocompromised, disabled, and elderly community members. 

Lastly, here is a list of questions that I believe must be publicly answered. Your students, faculty, alumni, and community members deserve these answers: 

– What will happen if you do not fill out the self assessment every day? 

– If a professor tests positive for COVID, are they required to quarantine for 2-3 weeks? Is their sick leave covered, paid? 

– If that teacher has 5 classes, with 15-30 students each, do all 75-150 students need to then stay home and quarantine for 14 days? Do all those 150 students need to get tested? Who pays for those tests? Does every student in each of their classes need to get tested and/or quarantine? Do we all get notified of who is infected and when? Or do HIPPA regulations mean we just get “may have been in contact” emails all year long? Will a clear plan of action be made transparent for what actually happens when an outbreak occurs? 

– Does everyone who lives with those people need to get tested and quarantine as well? 

– Will free testing be available? Will there be testing available on campus, free or not? There are plenty of students, like me, without healthcare and/or without a car. It must be affordable and accessible if it is a requirement. 

– Will I need a doctors note stating I am immunocompromised in order to get approved for COVID accommodations through DSR? If I don’t have insurance, can I go to our health center for assistance? 

– What if a student cannot afford a test, but it is required? What about treatment, who will pay for that? Will there be financial assistance available for that? 

– If I have a mild symptom and need to be absent, will I need a doctors note to be excused? 

– How will absences be counted? If you have to quarantine for 2 weeks and miss 2 weeks of each class, will you still pass? Will professors be prepared for you to go online right away, while you have to quarantine? 

– What are options for student employment that are online, for immunocompromised people? 

– What happens when a student contacts their professor saying they can’t handle all this stress, and ask for an extension? Or doesn’t turn it in at all? Is there a leniency policy in the works? 

– What if a student needs to be online but cannot find an online section of their course? Can that one student be online regardless? How do students go about that process? 

– Will students be asked to sign a waiver in order to return, like athletes at some schools around the country? 

Thank you for your time.

I look forward to your thorough response,

Chloe Harpst