Through the Looking Glass With an (Almost) Post-Pandemic Lens

UC Santa Barbara is bustling again. After a long absence, students have returned to campus, settling in to study at the library, grabbing coffee at The Arbor and chatting with one another around Storke Tower and at the UCen before heading off to class. At first glance, the scene is much the same as it was two years ago — and as it is every fall, with the notable exception of 2020. But if you look more closely, the differences from that extraordinary time are evident as well: Every student wears a face mask indoors and many don them outdoors, too. While returning students greet friends they haven’t seen in person for more than a year and a half, new students, including the current crop of second-years, are finding their way around campus for the first time. These are visible changes wrought by SARS-CoV-2, better known as COVID-19, a pandemic that made the familiar feel unfamiliar, and vice versa. After nearly two years, and seemingly incalculable loss, campus life is returning to “normal.” But in the era of COVID-19, what exactly is normal?

Our campus community faced numerous challenges at the onset of the pandemic as students and faculty pivoted to remote instruction and all but essential on-site staff relocated from campus to home offices.

But if COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that Gauchos are not only adept and resourceful, we’re also community-minded. When the going got tough, we looked out for one another, albeit from afar. Instructors developed new ways to connect with their students, researchers found new ways to continue their scholarly and scientific work, and students created new ways to stay in touch with the campus and with their classmates. And we all pitched in for the common good.

Separated from their beloved campus, for example, a group of undergrads set about recreating it, collectively, virtually, in Minecraft. At a scale of 1 block per meter, the map features central locations such as the library, Storke Tower, the UCen, Campbell Hall and The Arbor, as well as the on-campus residence halls. Players also could ride around campus on horses (there are no bicycles in Minecraft), enjoy Dog Therapy Day on the grass north of the library or seek counsel, via chat, with the man at the 5¢-advice booth near Girvetz Hall. “The attention to detail is so amazing,” says Charles Neumann ’20, who created the joint server as a senior in April 2020 before graduating in June. What started as a way for Neumann and his friends to share some fun at a distance quickly took on a life of its own as hundreds more students joined the game.

 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when hospital and service workers in the area were in desperate need of protective gear, UC Santa Barbara’s science and theater communities — a seemingly disparate group — responded. The researchers and engineers at the university’s California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) tabled their own work in favor of 3D-printing face shields to augment other personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by health professionals. As CNSI’s David Bothman recalls, “In the course of one day, four faculty members who had read about the work being done elsewhere around the world got in touch with references, contacts and offers to help.”

Meanwhile, the cutters and drapers in the theater and dance department’s costume shop worked their magic from home, sewing hundreds of cloth face masks that were donated to health care professionals in Santa Barbara and Ventura. Cutter and draper Lillian Hannahs described the effort as “time consuming, monotonous and deeply rewarding.”

Theater production supervisor Devin Gee also pitched in from home, 3D printing PPE for health care workers. In addition to face shields, he manufactured tension release bands, which were in high demand for use with cloth masks.

Cutter and draper Lillian Hannahs sews masks for healthcare workers.
Photo Credit: Jeff Liang

And as the pandemic wore on, UC Santa Barbara’s faculty members lent their expertise to a deeper, collective understanding of COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In live panel discussions and Q&A’s, medical experts and microbiologists explained how viruses work, and delved into the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines, the delta variant, and the non-medical interventions that limit the spread of COVID-19. Scientists also conducted a surveillance study to better understand how the virus travels through asymptomatic carriers, and launched parallel COVID-19 virus variant surveillance projects with Cottage Health in Santa Barbara to determine the prevalence of variants in the local community and to understand how their distribution changes over time.

Geography professor emeritus Tommy Dickey, meanwhile, went quite literally to the dogs. Dickey, the owner of three Great Pyrenees therapy dogs, teamed with BioScent researcher Heather Junqueira to study whether dogs — in this case German shepherds, Belgian malinois and Jack Russell terriers, among others — can be used to detect the novel coronavirus. Conducting a comprehensive survey of research devoted to the use of trained scent dogs, they found that, indeed, medical scent dogs can be used for screening people who may be COVID-19 positive. What’s more, the dogs accomplished their task non-intrusively and with the same — or possibly better — accuracy than saliva and nasal swab tests. “One dog twice indicated positive results that could not be confirmed,” Dickey notes. “Two weeks later they found that both people who gave those samples had to be hospitalized with COVID.”

 

 

Other scholars and scientists explored the impact of the pandemic from social and humanistic perspectives. The 2021 Rupe Conference, organized by Ron Rice, the Arthur N. Rupe Professor in the Social Effects of Mass Communication, examined the importance — and challenges — of communicating about COVID-19. The conference brought together a wide range of experts to explore the ways people communicate about COVID-19, both individually and collectively, on a host of topics, from regional variations in news coverage to the changing meaning of work when some professions are categorized as essential (or not).

Similarly, the UCSB Economic Forecast Project developed a series of webinars that focused on the pandemic’s impact on the local economy, from housing to jobs to business to tourism.

Creating additional opportunities to take deeper dives into pandemic-related issues, the Graduate Division awarded 44 mini-grants to individual graduate students and team projects. Among the topics explored were the impact of COVID-19 on essential workers’ distress, perceptions of parenting and child mental health symptoms; death rituals and bereavement during the pandemic from a religious studies perspective; and the relationship between COVID-19 transmission and inter-city migration at the time of the 2020 Chinese Spring festival.

With COVID-19 touching every corner of the world, many UC Santa Barbara scholars and scientists applied their expertise to communities around the globe. Though news reports highlighted the pandemic’s toll on countries and major cities throughout the world, little attention was paid to Indigenous populations that were particularly at risk but largely excluded from most national or regional efforts to curb the spread of the disease. In response, UC Santa Barbara anthropology professor Michael Gurven and a team of colleagues, physicians and tribal leaders joined forces and developed a strategy for mitigating the impact of COVID-19 among the Tsimane, an Indigenous population in the Bolivian Amazon. “While every individual around the world is vulnerable to COVID-19,” Gurven notes, “because it is new and no one has developed any immunity, many Indigenous communities are at additional risk because of widespread respiratory illness.”

Elsewhere in the world, UC Santa Barbara’s Climate Hazards Center turned its focus to identifying areas of increased food insecurity to help coordinate humanitarian aid during the pandemic. For more than a decade, the CHC has provided critical analysis to its partner, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. The organization estimated that, across the 46 countries it monitors, 113 million people would need humanitarian aid in 2020 — roughly 25% more than the group’s pre-pandemic projections, and an increase of 31% over 2019. “Before the outbreak, the CHC was already helping the United States government cope with a very large increase in severe food insecurity across the globe,” says CHC director Chris Funk. “Then COVID-19 struck. In almost every country on the planet, including the U.S., many poor families are seeing reduced incomes and opportunities for work decline.”

As the campus has come back to life, these efforts will continue, if even in adapted form. The pandemic, we have learned, is present in every aspect of campus life, from classrooms to laboratories to study sessions and informal gatherings. It remains part of our new ethos.

COVID-19 has forced us to think and act differently in every area of our lives — on the job, at home and out in the community. Thanks to the novel coronavirus, what was once novel — from face masks to PCR and rapid tests to proof of vaccination — now feels commonplace to us. Maybe a lasting lesson we can take from the pandemic is that “normal” is not a fixed condition or a set point. It is ever-evolving. And so are we.