When it comes to public health concerns, campuses must place the safety and comfort of their students above all else—including profit.
A prominent display selling surgical face masks and N95 respirator masks at the University of Toronto Bookstore sparked criticism from U of T students last week. The masks, priced $100 to $160 per box, were removed from display, and the business issued an apology after images of the products circulated online.
The store’s decision to sell the masks coincided with the World Health Organization’s declaration of the novel coronavirus as a “global health emergency.”
Although the store explained the display as a failed attempt to service the school community’s needs in its apology, supplying students with face masks reaches well beyond the business’s role as a bookseller.
And there was no need for the store to stock masks in the first place: Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health doesn’t recommend wearing masks in public as a meaningful way to prevent the contraction of viruses.
While coronavirus is a serious global issue, this incident proves how misinformation and prejudice pervade many ill-informed perspectives about the virus’s spread, mortality rate, and origin.
Viral news coverage has widely sensationalized the coronavirus’ spread. A discriminatory rhetoric has surfaced in the wake of hyperbolic reporting that targets the Chinese community in Canada. Any actions—no matter how big or small—contributing to the frenzy surrounding coronavirus provide a platform for racism against these communities.
Displaying the masks at the Bookstore only fueled students’ fears about the virus. Selling them at significantly marked-up prices—as opposed to giving them out for free—indicates that the store’s priorities lie in the wrong place: profit.
Regardless of intention, profiting off students’ fears and anxieties around coronavirus isn’t only unethical, but actively harmful.
Campus attitudes toward the coronavirus outbreak has been disappointing, to say the least. Insensitivity and ignorance have created an unwelcoming, often xenophobic environment for Queen’s students directly and indirectly affected by coronavirus and related stigma. At Queen’s, Chinese New Year couplets in a residence building were torn down. Students on campus also hosted a coronavirus-themed party over the weekend.
The U of T Bookstore’s decision to sell masks in the wake of public response to the coronavirus has serious fear-mongering consequences. Inconsiderate actions like this only add to the negative stigma present on Canadian campuses.
They contribute to the perception that certain groups of students aren’t welcome at Canadian universities.
In the face of this fear and concern, students need to prioritize informed action—like supporting Chinese and Asian communities on campus in reducing stigma—over frenzied misinformation.
Universities and campus establishments must lead by example.
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