MRU faculty help Calgarians cope with COVID-19 through media

Twenty profs tackle variety of topics during pandemic

Photo of Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw speaks about the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in Alberta. Photo courtesy Government of Alberta.

As Calgarians struggle with the constant fluctuations of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mount Royal University’s subject matter experts have been helping light the way at every step.

Reporters in Calgary and beyond regularly look to MRU for faculty able to speak to a variety of topics, to add context and perspective to issues of the day, and provide a voice of reason as they explain new and novel incidents to their readers, viewers and listeners.

Mount Royal prides itself on making those connections and supporting relationships between media and faculty. They benefit our community and showcase the depth of knowledge on campus. Faculty members have shared their thoughts and perspectives on COVID-19 since March in myriad areas.

Way back in the beginning

Photo of an empty store shelve.

Near empty shelves are pictured at a grocery store in Calgary. Photo courtesy Wilson Hui.

Professors began appearing in early stories on the emerging crisis, including Aliyah Dosani, PhD, professor in MRU’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, who was interviewed in March by CTV about handwashing and travel concerns; and Mohammed El Hazzouri, PhD, associate professor in marketing, who also spoke to CTV about online price gouging and growing product shortages.

Those worries were increasing for Calgarians when Tim Haney, PhD, professor in sociology and the inaugural Board of Governors’ Research Chair in Resilience and Sustainability, was interviewed by CTV about the lineups and empty shelves at local grocery stores, tying it into his research on the sociology of disaster response.

"It tells me that people aren’t prepared. One of the things that emergency managers will tell you is that it’s important to have a 72-hour kit on hand to make sure that you have clothing, medicine and pet food," Haney said.

He added that only the fortunate can afford to buy in bulk, so he encouraged people to share supplies with their friends and neighbours.

"Crises are never good, but crises can be opportunities to build a stronger community and so it will be interesting to see if that’s what happens in our communities," Haney said, who expanded on these themes in interviews with the Calgary Herald, including one feature on the concept of “caremongering.”

Meanwhile, David Legg, PhD, professor and chair in health and physical education, was prophetic long before sports in a “bubble” was a thing, when he predicted in a Calgary Sun story that professional sports could be sidelined much longer than many thought at the time.

“In many respects, this is way outside of the confines of sport,” he said. “When public health officials can provide guidance as to when it’s not going to be a public risk, leagues will be able to respond to that.

“But until that happens, they’re in a position beholden to the greater public good."

Sonya Jukubec, PhD, professor in nursing, was interviewed by Global News for two stories, one on playground safety, the other on vulnerable populations during the pandemic. 

One of the main concerns with the pandemic has been the health of children, at school but also at home where, sadly, some face different dangers.

Child studies and social work assistant professor Christina Tortorelli, PhD, told the Canadian Press later in March that “life is already tough for many families. There is a group that is already struggling and living on the edge of their resources. The increased stress, the mental health challenges that this presents for kids and parents ― that whole thing is like a powder keg.”

With the nation in lockdown and travel severely curtailed, in late March WestJet announced massive layoffs. Rajbir Bhatti, PhD, associate professor in supply chain management, added his perspective on the need for federal intervention to a story from CTV on the layoffs and airline industry. David Finch, PhD, professor in marketing, spoke to Retail Insider about the need for landlords to work closely with retailers to avoid “catastrophe” in that sector.

Around the same time, Kelly Sundberg, PhD, associate professor in justice studies, meanwhile, addressed the challenges of dealing with quarantine rule-breakers with CityNews.

A month into the pandemic, the media looked back and reflected on where we were. Lori Williams and Duane Bratt, PhD, professors in policy studies, discussed with CBC and through an op-ed in the Calgary Herald (respectively) how various levels of government had responded.

While Williams stressed that decisions by necessity had been made “on the fly and astonishingly quickly,” Bratt opined that the emerging “health versus the economy” debate was a false choice. As two of MRU’s most called-upon media experts, both have commented many times since on the challenges of governing during a pandemic.

The human side of the pandemic story


The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the airline industry. Photo courtesy Global News.

Working from home and the toll of social isolation were also hot topics around this time, and MRU faculty were asked to put it all in perspective.

Melanie Peacock, PhD, associate professor in human resources and another frequently quoted MRU media expert, discussed with Global News the question of whether working at home would become the “new normal” post-pandemic.

Caroline McDonald-Harker, PhD, associate professor in sociology, was asked by 660 News about COVID-19 restrictions and mental health. She said negative effects could take years to appear.

Later in April, Sean Holman, PhD, professor in journalism, often appeared in stories regarding freedom of information and the pandemic, arguing that in the interests of public safety governments need to be more transparent.

Meanwhile, Roberta Lexier, PhD, associate professor in general education, helped add context to the challenges of protesting during the pandemic in a CBC story, a dynamic that would grow more pronounced through the spring and summer as protests around BLM swept across North America and around the world.

In May, Alberta prepared to ease some restrictions, and Finch discussed malls reopening with Global News, while Joe Pavelka, PhD, a professor in health and physical education who researches travel, talked about the challenges for cruise ships and their passengers with CityNews.

As spring turned to summer, parents began to think about back to school as authorities planned different scenarios for fall. Tortorelli was interviewed by BBC on the topic of how to safely re-open schools and wrote an op-ed in the Herald arguing that children need the support that in-person education provides.

A long hot summer of drinks on the deck, combined with threats of new tariffs in the U.S., led to a feared shortage of aluminum and Bhatti was called upon numerous times to explain the supply chain dynamics behind the looming lack of beer, coolers and pop across the country.

“This is a classic case for demand underestimation,” said Bhatti in an interview with CTV. “We are now shopping for more aluminum packaged material and this has significantly hit the beer industry for sure.”

As the summer reached its peak and economic struggles continued, professor in economics Anupam Das, PhD, explained to CityNews that racialized Canadians were feeling the brunt of spiralling unemployment.

“It’s the uncomfortable truth that we are often not willing to discuss I guess publicly, but this is what’s happening. Whether it’s COVID or not, it was there,” Das said.

Later in August, Peter Ryan, PhD, assistant professor in public relations, helped put into context for Global News the difficulties public health authorities have when trying to communicate with young people. Young adults, he said, struggle with the idea they could spread the disease to those at risk.

With a new semester underway, journalism professor Archie McLean and a number of MRU journalism students are taking part in a Maclean’s magazine project, They were Loved, which chronicles the lives of those lost to COVID-19.

"It just takes you beyond the name and the age, and gives you a little window into what their life was like, and they're very beautiful — but very ambitious, as well, to get them all done,” McLean told CBC in an interview about the project.

As the pandemic drags on, Ray DePaul, director of MRU’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship was recently quoted in a column by Calgary Herald business writer Chris Varcoe on small businesses and their struggles during the pandemic.

DePaul stressed that in order to survive and thrive, businesses must pivot quickly and stay focused on their customers.

“Most founders start a business because they don’t like what the status quo is and want to create something that is better,” he said. “They have to get back to that mentality.”

In October, Christan Cook, PhD, associate professor in human resources was a guest CBC’s Alberta at Noon to discuss this telling topic: What have you had to sacrifice to keep your job during the pandemic?

And Sociologist Irene Shankar, PhD, was interviewed earlier this fall for the CTV documentary entitled COVID-19: The spread of racism, which aired on Oct. 12. Shankar explained that the current increase of racist attacks against Canadians of South East Asian descent is not a new phenomena. In fact, there is a long history of racism against Chinese Canadians and South East Asian immigrants in Canada. Historically, fear of diseases and illness was invoked to justify racist exclusions and discrimination against Chinese immigrants.

If you are interested in speaking with media for stories in your subject area, please get in touch with Peter Glenn, senior media relations officer at MRU, and stay tuned for upcoming faculty media training sessions.

Oct. 13, 2020 — Peter Glenn