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Recognizing COVID’s Impact

Acknowledging those who have had serious complications due to COVID-19

The return to in-person teaching in Fall 2021 marked a return to “normalcy” – people were again seen walking around campus, community activities and events were held, and libraries were full. The decision to return to in-person has been contested since Summer 2021, yet conversation has focused more on the university’s policies and preparedness as opposed to the individuals affected by the virus.

“I know of a few deaths […] and several hospitalizations,” writes Rine Vieth, a graduate student at McGill, on Twitter. “I’m having convos with students who think that the McGill community has not been impacted by COVID-19.” This unawareness is clear – on the r/mcgill reddit thread, one user wrote “the (relatively very low) ‘risk’ of COVID doesn’t matter. COVID is more or less done. Grow up and stop hiding under the bed.”

Between August 2021 and January 2022, there have been 226 individual McGill students and employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 and were present on university campuses during their contagion period, according to the university. The number of overall cases impacting the McGill community is likely higher, as the COVID-19 case tracker does not take into account individual cases that were not present on campus.

One such example is Osama Alsamman, an employee in the IT and technical services department who passed away in December 2021. Ehab Lotayef, Alsamman’s manager in the IT and technical services department, explained to the Daily that Alsamman had only recently begun working for the university – his appointment became effective November 10, 2021. “I found [Alsamman] somebody with very high potential and high enthusiasm,” Lotayef commented. Thomas Chalmers, president of McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association, told the Daily that the union was “in the process of welcoming him as a new member when he passed.”

Lotayef explained the day that Alsamman was meant to begin at McGill, his daughter tested positive for COVID-19 – he explained he wouldn’t be able to come in, and began work from home. Two days later, Alsamman himself tested positive. “For a couple days, he was fatigued and down and couldn’t work,” said Lotayef, “but then he came back and he was very energetic and much more there […] I thought he would be [in the office] on Monday, that was the end of his quarantine.” After he was absent on Monday, Lotayef learned from those close to Alsamman that he had been admitted to an intensive care unit.

“Everybody started to say ‘he won’t make it,’” said Lotayef. Alsamman died only a couple days after being admitted to intensive care due to complications from the virus. “It was really devastating to me that I started to know him,” Lotayef said, “I knew he had a very young family, a two year and a four year old kid.”

Kristi Kouchakji, Secretary-General of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), explained in an email to the Daily that McGill’s case management doesn’t share information about reported cases due to confidentiality. As such, it can be difficult to ascertain the severity of positive cases – because of McGill’s reportedly high vaccination rates, many assume that COVID-19 cases in the McGill community are mild. “I’d also like to point out that COVID has had many indirect impacts on our members as well,” she wrote, “from members who’ve lost their non-academic jobs, members who’ve been stuck between waiting for study permit backlogs to clear and inflexible departments refusing remote accommodations, members in need of ongoing medical care for non-Covid purposes and who are struggling to access that care, […] members who went literally months without receiving their funding or their TA/RA/lecturer salaries because of Workday and related admin issues that were later blamed on the pandemic, etc.”

Earlier this month, François Shalom, a McGill employee, had his heart replacement surgery indefinitely postponed. The procedure was supposed to have taken place at the McGill University Health Center at the end of January, but was postponed due to a directive to cut back non-urgent surgeries to free up beds and staff. Shalom told CBC “It’s absolutely petrifying […] This is surgery to save my life.”

Announced January 14, McGill will return to in-person learning on January 24, whilst the rise in the Omicron variant has seen an unprecedented wave of hospitalizations – despite Labeau’s reassurance that hospitalizations and cases will “likely soon begin to stabilize.” On Friday, COVID-19 hospitalizations hit an all time high, surpassing 3,000 patients in hospitals with the coronavirus. “I’d like to take this opportunity to remind folks that ‘Omicron is mild’ really just means ‘if you’re vaccinated with three doses you probably won’t die,’” commented Kouchakji, “a so-called ‘mild’ case can still have serious long-term consequences.”

Following the University’s announcement, students renounced the decision to return to in-person in an open letter: “An assumption that most students will not be seriously harmed if infected with COVID-19 is ableist and contributes to McGill’s devaluing of diabled students and community members.”