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Apr 18, 2021

The cost of hygiene theater

In at least two different meetings last week, we discussed campus reopening and safety measures. The question is: should we follow the best scientific advice available right now, or should we also take people’s anxieties and fears seriously? The answer is not obvious. On one hand, we have learned that massive cleaning was a waste of time and money, and that virus does not really spread through surfaces. On the other hand, perceptions of danger are just as real as the danger itself. If we want to people feel safe back on campus, we better show that we care about their feelings. On one hand, we are a university, a place that should always demonstrate respect for science and rational thinking. ON the other hand, we are a caring community, and should not force the science on our people. Some suggest that if we put out too much of the “hygiene theater” we will reinforce some irrational fears and make them worse. However, if we do not put enough, we may lose trust and make the fear worse.

There is also the issue of cost. For example, some people wanted to discuss air purifiers in offices. The Facilities told us they have already upgraded building filtration systems, and individual purifiers are not only useless, but also very costly, if you provide to everyone. However, the good cleaning at least once a day may be not as expensive and not very different from pre-COVID cleaning. The plexiglass barriers are somewhat expensive, but they may have additional benefit of limiting the spread of other viruses, like common cold. We have spent a lot of time calculating various formulas for room capacity, but if everyone is vaccinated, it should not make any difference. Except people are now to used to holding a distance, that it is physically difficult to break out of the new habit. A crowded room will feel dangerous for a long time, even if it is not. After all, many of us lost family members and friends to the virus.

This is a particular case of an old ontological dilemma: what is reality? Is it something that is objectively out there, regardless of what we think? Or is it also how we perceive it? For an administrator, neither option can be acceptable. Like many other similar dilemmas, this one is not going to be resolved without some compromise, without finding a balance. There is still hard truth: the virus is whether spread by contaminated surface or not (It is not). Vaccinated individual can either spread the virus or not (it looks like it is highly unlikely). But that hard pit of reality is covered by soft but significant fruit of human perception that cannot be ignored.

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