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Faculty on the front lines

How Concordia-led research can serve a post-COVID-19 world
October 6, 2020
By Joel Barde

Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. This adage, adapted from a quote by the 19th-century American writer James Lane Allen, has been widely circulated throughout the COVID-19 crisis to illustrate good — and poor — examples of governance.

For a number of Concordia professors and researchers, the pandemic has exposed a host of preventable, structural vulnerabilities in society, from the troubled state of elder care to the precarious nature of essential and lower-wage work. It has also afforded the opportunity to take concrete action to address some of these issues.

Janis Timm-Bottos, associate professor, Department of Creative Arts Therapies, and founder and director of the Art Hives Network.

Concordia’s Centre for Research on Aging (engAGE) launched an initiative to address social isolation among seniors last January.

Located in Quartier Cavendish (formerly Cavendish Mall), in the Montreal suburb of Côte-Saint-Luc, the Creative Living Lab saw students facilitate book and film clubs, digital technology skill shares and an art hive for older adults, all overseen by a diverse cohort of researchers. The lab’s activities quickly developed a loyal following.

The sudden onset of COVID-19 forced the Creative Living Lab to go digital in March.

“It’s been an extraordinary opportunity to look at how we think about social isolation,” says Janis Timm-Bottos, the project lead, associate professor in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies, and the founder and director of the Art Hives Network

“When anything gets turned upside down in such a massive way, it lets you see things from different perspectives.”

According to Timm-Bottos, the Lab’s online groups, formed post-pandemic, have helped older members of the com­munity cope with social isolation, the harmful effects of which she likens to cigarettes. As a result, the art therapist and interdisciplinary scholar has spent much of this year thinking about the role institutions of higher learning can play in hastening a more equitable future.

“It’s important for people to remember that we’re riding out the same storm,” says Timm-Bottos. “I’m really hoping that solidarity can produce more kindness, more reaching out and more of an effort to create healthy spaces for people to connect.”

‘Less selfish and more unified’

While the severity of its impact has varied, there’s no question that the pandemic has affected everyone. Canadians have looked to government officials to ensure that the health-care system was not overburdened and have grappled with the challenges of spending an inordinate amount of time at home.

Nicole De Silva, assistant professor, Department of Political Science: “The pandemic has helped accelerate movements to end police violence and take down monuments to racism.”

“It’s pretty rare to have an event that touches every facet of society,” says Nicole De Silva, whose research looks at international co-operation and global governance. Such common experiences can help spur change, though society must be vigilant to guard against government overreach, argues the assistant professor in the Department of Political Science.

In May, De Silva published a paper in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that looked at how major emergencies can threaten human rights when governments introduce exceptional measures that lack sunset clauses and outlive their utility. De Silva, who served as the inaugural IKEA Research Fellow in International Relations at the University of Oxford, says that COVID-19 decrees have compelled many Canadians to reflect on their rights for the first time.

“It’s an interesting test, particularly for a country like Canada that sort of rests on its laurels when it comes to human-rights governance.”

Christian Moreau, Canada Research Chair in Surface Engineering and a professor in the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Aerospace Engineering, sees the unifying nature of the crisis as an opportunity to improve things for the most vulnerable among us — and mobilize efforts to mitigate future crises.

“All around the world, we are facing the same problem,” says Moreau, who also serves as the director of research at the Concordia Institute of Aerospace Design and Innovation (CIADI). “I think it’s a unique experience and I’m hoping that we will emerge a little less selfish and a little more unified.”

Such unity will be key to addressing issues such as the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on the working poor as well as larger existential threats, such as global warming, he explains. Like COVID-19, climate change is an issue that “we have to face.”

Inequity exposed

While the aftermath of COVID-19 may have a unifying effect, its fallout has not been evenly distributed.

Steven High, professor, Department of History, and founding member, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling: “What we see today is a result of years of government cutbacks and people being underpaid.”

“Who is most likely to get COVID?” asks Steven High, a professor in the Department of History and a founding member of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. “It’s the front-line workers, from bus drivers to grocery store clerks, who are working-class and often racialized, who are most impacted.”

High is in the midst of a collaborative, seven-year $2.5-million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) research project on deindustrialization and the rise of populism.

He notes that Canada and the United States have moved towards a new economic model marked by a decline in well-paid manufacturing jobs and a rise in short-term and part-time employment. Many workers now lack job security, health care and the support of a union to collectively bargain on their behalf.

In High’s estimation, government should use its powers to promote full-time work and increase the minimum wage. This, he says, could help level the playing field between unionized and non-unionized businesses.

High also sees the situation in Quebec’s elder-care facilities as emblematic of larger systemic problems. According to CBC News, 88 per cent of deaths from COVID-19 in the province have been in long-term care homes. In June, Quebec’s chief coroner ordered a public inquiry into the large number of fatalities — more than 5,700 as of late August — at these and other, similar facilities.

“What we see today — in terms of the huge death toll in Quebec — is a result of years of government cutbacks and people being underpaid,” says High. “Many people who are working in long-term care facilities work through temp agencies and are being moved from place to place. This is part of the reason why we’ve had such a terrible experience here in Montreal.”

The reality of COVID-19 is that it’s had a highly uneven impact on society, with people in the knowledge economy largely able to continue working.

“I haven’t stopped receiving cheques every two weeks and I’m at very minimal risk of contracting the virus,” says Zachary Patterson, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, and Canada Research Chair in Transportation-Land Use Linkages for Regional Sustainability. “The people who are really suffering have lost their jobs on account of everything being shut down.”

Patterson, whose work focuses on the modelling of transportation, the environment, land use and their linkages, says that while there is currently some reluctance to use public transportation, that should ebb as the contagion reduces. For now, he remarks that more resources “should be devoted to those most at risk.”

Research with society-wide impact

Christian Moreau, professor, Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Aerospace Engineering, and Canada Research Chair in Surface Engineering.

With faculty on the front lines of research across a broad range of disciplines, Concordia is poised to drive crucial innovations with society-wide implications.

Christian Moreau, who serves as director of the Green-SEAM  (Surface Engineering for Advanced Manufacturing) Network, sees an opportunity to develop better mechanisms to handle current threats and prepare for future events.

The network supports key Canadian economic sectors that generate high-value jobs and are export intensive, including advanced manufacturing in aerospace, automotive, natural resources industries and renewable energy. In total, Green-SEAM researchers have secured Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funds for five surface engineering projects related to the COVID-19 fight.

Moreau’s team is studying how various surface coatings can be deployed to reduce the spread of the virus. He notes that while the virus lasts for two to three days on stainless steel, a material widely used in most medical facilities, copper surfaces tend to neutralize it in a couple of hours. Other materials, such as titanium oxide, can be even more effective in reducing transmission.

“We are starting a process for looking at the key challenges that we should address in the coming years,” says Moreau, of the Green-SEAM Network’s mandate. “Clearly antiviral and antibacterial surfaces could be amongst the solutions that are assessed.”

Led by Concordia’s Christian Moreau, Green-SEAM — a network composed of researchers from 11 Canadian universities — aims to develop and deploy innovative and environmentally conscious surface engineering solutions.

Moreau adds that the network’s partners in the private sector have been keen to participate. “If they have tools that can be useful to fight the pandemic, they are ready to invest and contribute to society.”

Frédéric Godin, a Department of Mathematics and Statistics faculty member whose research focuses on how to minimize risk in the financial services industry, sees a lot of potential to harness machine learning to alleviate the negative economic consequences of crises like the pandemic.

“AI can be used to try to understand who is more at risk of defaulting,” says Godin. “Also, a company can learn how to better serve individual clients by better understanding their profiles and building specific services for them.”

There’s also a need to address changes in leadership style. For many Canadians, one of the most tangible day-to-day adjustments has centred on work. With Zoom and Slack the new norm, certain adaptations have been required at the managerial corporate level.

Kathleen Boies, a professor in the Department of Management at the John Molson School of Business, and Concordia University Research Chair in Leadership Development, says that this new work-at-home arrangement has major implications.

Kathleen Boies, professor, Department of Management, and Concordia University Research Chair in Leadership Development.

“It will have an impact on how we approach leadership and the supervision of employees,” she observes. “Being confined at home has really brought to light what works and what doesn’t in terms of management.”

Boies adds that for many, the experience of telecommuting has led to important reflections on work-life boundaries and the importance of social networks. “Hopefully, these thoughts about various aspects of our lives will end up advancing society for the better.”

History repeats

In Nicole De Silva’s view, society must study and learn from COVID-19 in order to be prepared for future crises. There has been a collective amnesia around similar events in the past that we must avoid, she says.

Between 1918 and 1920, the H1N1 influenza A virus killed somewhere between 17 and 50 million people. “People just wanted to forget that period because it was so traumatic,” says De Silva. “It took World War II and the Holocaust to prompt states to not only create the United Nations but embed human rights into the organization.”

De Silva adds that the experience of the pandemic — from mass unemployment to an extended lockdown — has prompted activism around certain causes and ini­tiatives. That’s reason for optimism.

“There’s been talk of having a treaty on the rights of older persons at the global level,” she says. “The pandemic has also helped accelerate movements to end police violence and take down monuments to racism.”

Student research assistants take part in a virtual team meeting for the Centre for Research on Aging (engAGE) Living Lab.

‘We’re all in this together’

Janis Timm-Bottos hopes that a more equitable future emerges in the wake of the pandemic.

“I certainly hope that we will have taken very good note of the weaknesses, or vulnerabilities, of our health system and that we can, collectively, work to address them. I also very much hope that we have had a collective awakening around the importance of older citizens in our society and that things will change substantially and quickly to ensure their safety, health, comfort and well-being.”

Timm-Bottos adds that much like the seniors she’s working with in engAGE’s Creative Living Lab, she and her family have taken comfort in art, using it as a way to ground themselves amid a rapidly changing world rife with uncertainty.

In her view, the workshops the lab offers can be scaled up and provide a cost-effective alternative to expensive one-on-one art therapy sessions.

With Canadians having to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, Timm-Bottos thinks social environments are a valuable area of investment.

“If we would put money there, we would see tremendous improvements in connectivity and overall health,” she says. “Society needs to normalize the experience we’re all going through and recognize that almost everyone has experienced significant challenges related to COVID-19. We’re all in this together.”

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