COVID-19: how should we move forward?

Southern Utah University held a forum on civil discourse Wednesday, Nov. 3 in the Great Hall of the Hunter Alumni Center. The featured panelists included faculty and staff from the Health Sciences, Humanities & Social Sciences, Engineering and Education & Human Development colleges. 

The forum’s purpose was to introduce students to civil dialogue. SUU wanted to create a time and space for discussion on controversial political and societal topics. Provost John Anderson introduced the forum to the audience saying that the goal of that biannual discussion was to promote authentic and civil discussion amongst one another.

“Please observe the panel as we discuss how we should move forward from COVID-19,” Anderson said. “The goal of our biannual civil discourse is to explore ideas for a solution to a shared issue while practicing empathy and respect.”

The panelists were instructed to advise the audience on which ways society should move forward from the pandemic in accordance with their disciplinary perspective. 

SUU Professor of Nursing Mark Seimon began the forum and shared his thoughts from his perspective and background in public health. He believes that the health sector of the United States had failed. 

“Since the outbreak, 750,000 people have died,” Siemon said. “We can’t move forward without recognizing that.”

Siemon explained that the public health sector let its guard down throughout the pandemic and false information regarding the virus was allowed to spread.

“The university did not see the horrific tragedies experienced in New York,” he explained. “Hospitals were overrun and many people died.”

The way to move forward is to promote that the vaccine is safe and effective according to Siemon. People need to be vaccinated and create enough immunity in order to beat the pandemic. 

Next, Dr. Roger Gold, a microbiology professor with a background in immunology, shared an anecdote of how his students respected his wishes for them to wear masks. 

“I was worried about my parents, who I take care of,” Gold stated. “Even if my students were against wearing a mask, they wore one for me in my class out of empathy and respect.”

The first assignment for students in Gold’s class was to research the efficacy of wearing a mask and getting vaccinated in preventing the spread and dangers of COVID. Gold said that even after students discovered wearing a mask does decrease the spread and being vaccinated does boost protective immunity, many of the students would not do either. 

Gold conducted an anonymous survey in his class which revealed that 59% of his students said they would not wear a mask, 48% of his students were not vaccinated and of those students, 28% determined they never intended to be vaccinated. 

Gold was shocked by the results. “Even when we show people the facts, they don’t listen or change their behavior according to those facts,” he said. 

Gold proceeded to compare perception in the United States on COVID to the perception on polio during the 1950s. 

“In the 1950s, vaccination rates were so high that the U.S. basically eradicated Polio,” Gold stated. “The U.S. promoted a strong emphasis on vaccination education so people would recognize that the disease was an issue and trust the science.”

Gold finished by advocating for unity across the United States in order to control the pandemic and that nearly everyone needs to take precautions by either wearing masks, being vaccinated or both. 

Professor Maren Hirschi from the Family Life & Human Development college focussed on moving forward from a mental health perspective. She believes people need to practice empathy and honesty in order to understand different perceptions on the vaccine. 

“People who are against the vaccine have a personal reason,” Hirschi said. “This does not make anti-vax the correct perspective but people should try to empathize with them as they should with those who support it.”

Even if Hirschi wants people to make an effort to connect with those who hold a different view on the COVID vaccine, she also says people need to hold politicians responsible for dishonest conduct such as passing legislation that makes mandating a mask illegal. 

“We have to address individual perception which includes holding folks accountable,” she said. “Especially those in power.” 

Mary Bennet, the director of the Michael O’Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service, addressed the pandemic from the perspective of public servants and officials. 

“In times of crisis, people look to the government as a source of leadership and guidance,” Bennet said. “The problem is no one has been through this in our lifetime.”

She explained that no one had a clear, up-to-date plan on how to handle a pandemic so the public health care system and other resources were overwhelmed quickly. Public officials were not prepared and each county, school board and state ran by a different set of rules.

“Elected officials are in a jam because they try to appease different interests,” she said. “This was devastating to our country, especially since Americans have low confidence in public institutions.”

Katherine Hill, a lecturer in economics, closed the panel’s discussion from an economic perspective. She explained the pandemic hit the lowest paid workers in the economy the hardest. 

“These workers were often not people who could transition to working at home or they could not transition to another job,” Hill said. “They often had to deplete their savings and bank accounts to stay afloat.”

Hill continued to explain that, on the other hand, those in mid to higher paying jobs tended to fare better because they could transition to work from home and were able to save more money

To conclude her thoughts, Hill explained that people did not want to return to work because the pandemic made them realize they want a job that fits their lifestyles. 

“The pandemic allowed people to step back and think about what they value in life,” she continued. “For a lot of people that is more time with their families which means having a more flexible job with higher pay and better benefits.”

The forum finished with Anderson thanking the panelist for their civility and informing the audience on SUU’s next biannual event. The next forum will be held in the spring of 2022–check out SUU’s calendar of events to find out more.

Story and photos by: Danielle Meuret