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Real-time study of coronavirus planned in University of Saskatchewan curriculum

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WATCH: Students will study the social science impacts of the novel coronavirus during the University of Saskatchewan’s fall semester – Sep 4, 2020

University of Saskatchewan staff may want to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading on campus, but COVID-19 will definitely be part of the social science curriculum.

As an archaeology and anthropology professor, Pamela Downe will be asking her 165 students to examine how COVID-19 has culturally disrupted people across the world – and they’ll do it before the coronavirus has run its full course.

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“From an anthropological standpoint, I think this is an extremely significant time in human history and cross-culturally,” Downe said.

A specialist in medical anthropology, Downe is used to talking about infectious disease and pandemics. It’s common for her to teach topics as they’re unfolding in real time, but the coronavirus data changes every day.

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“This is to an extent that I’ve never experienced before as a professor,” she said.

COVID-19 will be central in her instruction of university students this fall.

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Undergrads will also look at how COVID-19 is “piling on” other health crises around the world. Downe highlighted the global HIV pandemic and opioid crisis, along with persisting concerns around ebola, dengue fever and zika virus.

“For those people who are struggling with issues related to housing insecurity, chronic ill health [and] stigma, this pandemic is making things even harder for them.”
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While she believes there is never a bad time to study anthropology, Downe considers this a “particularly critical time.”

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Other disciplines have clear links to coronavirus education like epidemiology, biology or medicine. While it may not be the main focus of his teaching, Avi Akkerman, a University of Saskatchewan urban planning and demography professor, said there are still connections.

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Demography is the social science study of human populations, including the effect of illnesses. COVID-19’s rate of infection, its vulnerable populations and other factors are worthy of study.

For example, demographers would be interested in the specific ages, ethnicity and socio-economic statuses that are more susceptible to the virus.

“The grouping of population through different categories is really the main thrust of demography,” Akkerman said.

His students will examine numerous past pandemics, including the six-century Plague of Justinian, which Akkerman said killed nearly 50 million people or a quarter of the world’s population at the time.

Read more: Reality check: Bubonic plague is nothing new, nor is it a risk to Canadians

“Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century, there were several, more minor plagues throughout Europe – and thousands of people died,” Akkerman said.

Better understanding of health science, epidemiology and basic hygiene have since helped lower the risk.

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As an urban planner, Akkerman said even wider streets designed for cars have had an inadvertent benefit when it comes to reducing overcrowding and improving public health.

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