'It's pretty devastating to feel unsafe at your workplace': disabled, immunocompromised community members worried over end of campus mask mandates

Many immunocompromised and disabled community members say ending the mask mandates on campus threatens their lives, careers and education.

On June 27, President and Vice-Chancellor Santa Ono and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Lesley Cormack announced that UBC would no longer require masks in public indoor spaces on campus. Two days later, the AMS announced it would also be ending mask mandates in the Nest. Notably, the Life Sciences Institute announced it will keep its mask mandate in place.

Ono and Cormack wrote that the university’s position was in keeping with that of the BC Provincial Health Officer, and that the decision was made only “after consulting with internal stakeholders.”

Members of at least one stakeholder group, however, said they were not consulted.

“The Disability Affinity Group, and to our knowledge, disabled folks more generally were not consulted in the ending of the mask mandate,” said Dr. Jennifer Gagnon, an interdisciplinary lecturer and chair of the UBC Disability Affinity Group. The group — founded in 2020 by Gagnon and the Equity and Inclusion Office — represents disabled faculty and staff.

“The end of the mandate is something that is going to disproportionately impact disabled folks.” she added.

In a statement sent to The Ubyssey, Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, said UBC “consulted broadly” on the decision to end the mandate, with groups including “Vancouver Coastal Health, unions and employee groups, Alma Mater Society, Graduate Student Society and Student Union Okanagan.” None of the listed groups specifically represent disabled or immunocompromised people.

“It’s important to note that while the mandate was paused at UBC, the decision to wear one still rests with individual students, faculty and staff,” Ramsey added.

However, disabled and immunocompromised community members voiced concern about exactly that shift of responsibility from the institution to the individual.

Haley Branch, a botany PhD candidate, recently tweeted that because of newly unmasked people at her place of work, she “packed up [her] office” and that she “shant be back.” In an interview, Branch elaborated that while she can manage working from home for now, she is unsure of what will be possible when she is required to instruct a course in the fall.

Branch said some of her fellow grad students from UBC’s Disabled Graduate Student Association don’t even have the option to work from home.

“Many of us, we’re just not going in [to campus] anymore ... Obviously, some of my peers have to still go in, and it’s pretty devastating to feel unsafe at your workplace,” she said.

Alex, another high-risk student whose name has been changed to protect their privacy, acknowledged that statistically it may make sense to remove the mask mandate but that they are “still terrified.”

They described feeling exhaustion, fear and facing a “wall of adversity” from the general public when trying to speak up against the end of university mandates.

“It takes so much energy going against any ruling because you know you’re going to get backlash,” they said.

Gagnon agrees that self-advocacy for personal health needs comes at its own cost, and that one solution would be creating a UBC Disability Task Force with a seat at the table when the university makes decisions about public health.

She said the current lack of representation is a problem that has been gravely exposed by the pandemic and revolving public health mandates.

“The university and our society generally needs to stop treating the exclusion and deaths of disabled people as an acceptable price to pay, to return to ‘normal,’” she said.

For Branch, allies and concerned members of the public have an uncomplicated role to play in helping to protect disabled and immunocompromised people at UBC.

“It’s not on the disabled people to be doing all the leg work for this kind of thing,” she said. “It should just be in our own community’s best interest. Putting on a mask is not a hard thing to do.”