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Course takes a closer look at COVID-19

A mask sits on top of a computer keyboard
Students in Samantha King's HLTH 334 The Politics of Health and Illness course are taking a closer look at COVID-19 and its wide-ranging affects while it is still happening. (Unsplash/Dmitri Karastelev)

As the pandemic began to spread around the world earlier this year, Samantha King, a professor at Queen’s University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, saw an opportunity to elevate her course HLTH 334 The Politics of Health and Illness – taking a closer look at COVID-19 and its wide-ranging affects while it is still happening.

Previous iterations of the course also addressed viruses, vaccines, and epidemics but COVID-19 is current and front-of-mind for practically everyone. New information is constantly coming in but the focus of the course hasn’t changed – teaching students how health and illness are not simply biological individual experiences but collective social phenomena with political implications.

New textbook looks at bioethics and COVID-19
Staying current is an important aspect of creating a textbook for post-secondary education.
The newly-published This Is Bioethics, co-authored by Udo Schuklenk, Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics, and Ruth Chadwick, Professor Emerita of Cardiff University, addresses some of the ethical questions surrounding COVID-19 as well as many other fundamental questions, concepts, and issues within the rapidly-evolving area of study.
Within the chapter on public health, the authors approach the ethical implications of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The section looks at topics like triage decision-making, whether health care professionals have a duty to treat if PPE is absent or suboptimal, as well as the ethics of flattening the curve given such a policy’s harmful economic impact on people’s lives, and whether vaccines for this virus should be mandatory.
“Ruth Chadwick and I were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to put the finishing touches on this book when COVID-19 turned into a pandemic,” Dr. Schuklenk says. “We quickly decided to add relevant content in the public (and global) health ethics chapter so that students reading the book would find content that already responds to our current life situation. Unsurprisingly, many student questions and discussion contributions are COVID19 related.”
Dr. Schuklenk also produced video lectures for each chapter which are currently being used in a Queen’s Arts and Science Online course.

With a new plan, Dr. King quickly got to work identifying source material while utilizing a similar theoretical framework used in the course previously. She also had to develop the course for a remote learning model, with Queen’s moving most of its program online due to the pandemic.

“This course is really about trying to understand that the way we organize our society impacts how people experience health and illness,” Dr. King explains, adding that students generally enter kinesiology and health studies programs with an interest in improving the community’s overall health. “I am trying to get students to think about the relationship between their own experiences of the pandemic and larger social patterns and relations of power, and to understand that the virus didn’t come out of nowhere, that it came out of a particular context and that how we respond to it is not inevitable.”

Finding relevant and quality material for the course wasn’t a problem. More time-consuming was sifting through the massive amount of information regarding the latest developments that is constantly being put out and updated. But, with a lot of reading, Dr. King was able to select meaningful, interesting and accessible articles, academic and popular, for the students.

In moving the course to a remote learning model Dr. King has employed both synchronous and asynchronous components. Students also have an opportunity to meet with her at least once a week and also participate in smaller groups with a TA.

“The structure is working out well and that is as much about the small class size as it is about the remote learning,” she says. “I might continue to divide their tutorials into smaller groups once we return to face-to-face learning. Students are talking more and the conversation is more organic even though they are in little boxes on the screen. In the bigger lectures I have to work harder to get them to participate, but putting them into breakout rooms, then asking them to report back, helps with that.”

One of the areas of particular interest within the course are masks and why some people are open to wearing them while others are extremely opposed. This is where politics have played a major role.

“We are doing a semester-long project on masks and I am trying to help students understand how decisions about masking are not only about public health but connected to bigger political ideologies.,” he says. “Studying masks and people’s attitudes to them offers a powerful lens into what’s happening in the world right now, politically, economically, and socially.”

The findings are then being shared through a blog being created by the students themselves. The hope is that the material being posted will benefit those that access it.

“I haven’t done a blog as part of a course before,” Dr. King says. “I decided to do it this time because I thought if we are doing all this work to learn about COVID-19 and explain it to each other, we really should share it with the public too.”