By Joe Grogan
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced many negative consequences. The worst thing is the continuing loss of life.
In Canada, we have lost over 26,000 people, many of them residents of for-profit long term facilities/nursing homes. We must hold politicians at all levels responsible for this tragedy as well as their friends in the private sector who have put profit ahead of the health of the residents. Many long term care employees such as health care workers have died after contracting COVID 19 in the workplace. Many more employees have been hospitalized or are on stress relief.
The labour movement and its allies must continue the fight against residential workplace hazards, especially inadequate ventilation systems. Our correctional facilities face similar problems. In this article, I want to share concerns and a plea for action to address virtual reality, which has become an important challenge affecting us all.
Virtual reality and our political institutions
When the pandemic arrived in 2020, normal municipal political processes were restructured. Normal monthly meetings of municipal councils were suspended. In their place, monthly meetings had to follow directives from the provincial government. Municipal bodies had to organize their sessions using the digital format. Instead of regular monthly meetings that the public could attend, sessions were held virtually. Agendas were put online and the public could “attend” virtually, replacing traditional face-to-face encounters. Council sessions became depersonalized replacing the healthy debate of previous times. Control was and is centralized in the hands of bureaucrats and some senior elected council members familiar with the technology who could cut people off with a simple click of the mouse. Councillors no longer had to face the consequences of their actions from the public who could normally confront their elected officials face to face. One-on-one became the interaction process rather than a normal collective reality. All of this was made possible by provincial and municipal government decisions to “keep the public safe” from COVID. While COVID spread was a possibility, a few modest safety measures would have allowed most council meetings to be held normally. Very few members of the Caledon community for example attend council sessions virtually. Accountability of council members to the public and democracy has been seriously reduced. The same arrangements have been introduced In Ottawa. Very few elected politicians can attend in person; the majority can only participate virtually. All of this is very dangerous. Now democratic processes are replaced by press conferences featuring Prime Minister Trudeau, Premier Ford and local politicians, all of whom can control their scripted messages.
Virtual reality and education/learning
Virtual reality applied to our educational institutions and quality of learning has been and continues to be a disaster. Several months ago, a survey of educators and learners indicated that over 70 per cent surveyed were very unhappy with online learning. This was reported in the Toronto Star. Why this result? Regular in-school sessions were suspended last year to prevent COVID. However the virus provided an opportunity for the Ontario government to push forward with as much learning as possible via online processes and technology using digital. Before COVID really developed in Ontario, teacher unions went on strike over the issue of large class sizes, part-time teachers and the growing pressure from government to promote more and more online learning. The results for students and teachers have not largely been positive. Why? Online learning promotes alienation in the relationship between educators at all levels and their students. More and more of curricula moves into the hands of provincial government educational bureaucrats. Online learning means that students are less interested in dialogue with other learners and their teachers. Teachers become more and more disillusioned because education, which is a process based on personal relationships, becomes another computer-based function. From an employer viewpoint, online teaching means more and more part-time teachers. Full-time teachers lose some control over curricula. Employers love part-time teachers because they can be paid less with few, if any benefits. Besides, part-time teachers usually are not allowed or encouraged to join unions that can work to improve working conditions and quality of education. Fewer in-person staff meetings are held because such meetings, the argument goes, would encourage COVID spread. Communications instead between educational bureaucrats and educators only regularly take place via announcements and carefully scripted messages. One-way communication becomes the new norm. Parents of primary school learners are forced to assume some of the responsibilities of teachers and largely at the same time, cope with their jobs and other responsibilities. When challenged by learners, teachers or parents, the centralized educational authorities claim that their hands are tied and we all must adapt to this new world. Meanwhile, the issues associated with sexism and racism in the educational system can easily be sidelined because community input is not allowed, all in the interest of stopping COVID-19. One important reality is that many families were forced to buy expensive computers, cell phones and other devices for family members engaged in educational programs otherwise their family members would not have access to educational programs. Computer companies and service providers like Rogers and Bell have realized enormous profits from this new reality that gives them enormous new power and influence over education. Virtual reality has enhanced their profits.
More than ever, we need unions. We must figure out how to continuously engage our members and to give them the encouragement to raise questions and to be involved. It is true that virtual reality does produce efficiencies that make work easier. We must realize that virtual reality is not being promoted to enhance our quality of life. It is a specific strategy to give put more control in the hands of employers and politicians, making democracy and accountability difficult. We must fight centralized control that is made possible by the digital technology.