Going to class with a dangerous respiratory illness

Published on 2024-01-16

A few days ago my partner came down with a really, really bad... flu? We don't really know what it is. It hasn't registered as COVID on rapid tests, but it does remind me a lot of what I experienced when I got COVID.

When someone you live and share air with gets a dangerous respiratory illness, it is your civic duty to stay home and rest. I say, writing this from the library on campus.

There's this problem I've been struggling with for the last few years, and it's only seemed to get worse.

Once upon a time, all of my classes were offered online. When I lived in residence, if you showed symptoms of COVID or were in contact with someone who tested positive, staff at the university would deliver food to your dorm. In other words, people took dangerous respiratory illnesses seriously.

Then, one day, my city's leadership convened to declare that COVID was over. Thank god, we all sighed in relief, taking off our masks. We could finally go back to when things were normal. We could start compelling people to return to the office. We could force students into poorly ventilated Petri dishes. We could finally stop taking illness seriously.

In the process, it seems we learned nothing.

One thing that bothers me to no end is the fact that virtually every classroom in my university is fully equipped to seamlessly deliver lectures online. All the infrastructure is in place. But now that it's voluntary, all my professors leave it sitting idly. "I can't offer an online option for my lectures," they say, "because if I do, then you'll never show up!" To hell with disabled people. To hell with everyone whose lives were improved by this accessibility technology. You will attend the lecture. You will inhale the respiratory droplets.

The problem is and always has been that our buildings are not designed to have good ventilation. Had we spent half as much money on building better ventilation systems as we did in social and financial payouts to Zoom, then COVID and all future dangerous respiratory illnesses really wouldn't be all that big of a problem. But here we are. COVID and all other respiratory illnesses will continue to be a problem until we invest in better ventilation infrastructure.

In the meantime, I need to choose between derailing my life and putting my community at risk. This wouldn't even be a hard moral calculus if it wasn't for the fact that it truly seems like everyone in my life is at least indifferent to whether or not I put my community at risk. On a purely statistical level, isolating may lead to fewer cases of a particular illness in the population, but from a moral perspective, it literally does not matter. If someone gets sick because of me, it's not because I transmitted a dangerous respiratory illness to them; that's just how the cookie crumbles. Nature at work. There is no sense of "public health" in our consensus reality--just individual, isolated cases.

I feel like I'm going crazy. But it's not crazy to care about public health. What's crazy is that after all these years we still haven't figured out how to make a halfway decent ventilation system.

I'm not even entirely sure if this illness I may or may not have is airborne, for what it's worth. This isn't meant to be about my situation in this moment so much as a pattern of behaviour I see around my life. I like to think I'm smart enough to not go to class with a dangerous respiratory illness. If nothing else, COVID fucks you up. It can give you permanent brain damage if you don't take it easy on yourself. I've been there once and I don't ever want to go there again.

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