UMSU Condemns University Inaction Against The Bushfire Crisis

25 April 2020

In its 22 January Students’ Council meeting, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) condemned the University of Melbourne for not fulfilling its duty of care to students and staff in the Summer Term, during which bushfires in East Gippsland led to hazardous levels of air quality. 

In early January, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton advised vulnerable individuals, such as those with heart or lung disease, or asthma, to minimise their smoke exposure. He also warned that all individuals might experience symptoms from the smoke levels, including “worsening coughs” and “nose and throat irritation”. Less than two weeks later, Sutton called Melbourne’s air quality the worst in the world, and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Victoria classified the pollution as “hazardous”. The EPA gave the following dates ratings from “very poor” to “hazardous”: 3 January, 6 January, 14 January and 15 January. 

UMSU President Hannah Buchan said that, although the bushfires were outside of the University’s control, there is a pressing need for “mechanisms in place to support students affected by bushfires”. This includes “availability of masks” and “[leniency] with mandatory class attendance” when pollution levels are dangerous. 

According to UMSU General Secretary Jack Buksh, the University has not taken steps to “provide protection” to students. UMSU hopes that its purchase of P2 masks will motivate the University to do the same. Disposable P2 face masks help filter out particle matter 2.5 (PM2.5). The Acting Chief Medical Officer and State and Territory Chief Health Officers released a statement explaining that prolonged exposure to PM2.5 can cause a variety of health problems. 

In the University’s Health and Safety Policy, point 4.1(a) called for the minimisation of the risk of injury or illness to staff and students, while point 4.1(b) called for the creation of safe working and learning environments. 

Education (Public Affairs) Office Bearer Charlie Joyce told Farrago that the University should have “acted to prevent students and staff from …danger”. According to him, the institution should have improved its policies to reflect the worsening conditions in other cities. He lists Sydney as an example, in which the Air Quality Index reported hazardous levels of pollution as early as November last year. 

Summer Term Music student Annalyce Wiebenga said that no facilities were provided to students partaking in the summer term and that it was up to them to cope with the smoke. Wiebenga said that attending the University during these circumstances was like “standing in front of a bonfire”.

Biomedicine Honors student and Disabilities Officer Bearer Hue Man Dang noted that many buildings had “poor insulation and ventilation”. She said that, “Because there were no fans, the air [indoors] wasn’t moving. It was difficult to breathe.”

French and European Studies student Olivia Bell commented that “Coughing and breathing difficulties can happen to anyone.” As the Creative Arts Officer Bearer, they worked on the Parkville campus during days of heavy smoke. “Even if one doesn’t have extreme symptoms of smoke inhalation … [they can still experience] heightened anxiety”. 

In addition to staff and students, volunteers for VCE Summer School (VCESS) were also on campus. Approximately 500 students were involved in the annual program run by UMSU. VCESS subject tutor and social media manager, Allen Xiao, said that the circumstances meant program organisers had to reassess outdoor activities.* VCESS Directors did not respond to Farrago‘s request for examples of how air quality impacted VCESS-related events. 

“That was the day when the air pollution index was extreme. We were told to stay indoors… There were students phoning in with asthma or health issues that were exacerbated by the bushfires,” Xiao said. 

“I honestly felt like I couldn’t breathe properly,” VCESS biology tutor Nicole Nguyen told Farrago. Nguyen wore her own masks to protect her wellbeing against the high level of pollution. She was able to obtain some extra masks that she had bought from overseas. She gave her spare masks to people that “were asthmatic or struggling”. 

When asked about what action the students wished the University would have taken, Xiao and Nguyen both agreed that buying P2 masks and giving out more warnings to students would have been the fitting thing to do. 

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) University of Melbourne branch commended the University on its creation of the Bushfire Response Working Group. The NTEU also noted that the University’s “legal obligations” to workplace safety include the provision of masks at all campuses. It compounded the importance of providing such protective wear as the University was likely to be in a “better situation to source and provide masks” than individuals themselves were. 

In late January, Students’ Council passed a motion to approve $500 from its budget for the procurement and distribution of P2 masks for students. Buksh told Farrago that UMSU had not confirmed a supplier for the masks due to low stock levels. Quotes from suppliers claim that the money can buy up to a thousand masks. 

Joyce seconded the motion and said that the University’s words for student welfare “are far stronger than its actions”. Welfare Office Bearer Declan Kerger, who moved the motion, could not be reached for comment. 

A University spokesperson said in response to questions about the provision of masks that the institution’s current responses are more “sensible and practical” in the “deteriorating atmospheric conditions”. 

The spokesperson also told Farrago that the University sent advice from “the government, the health authorities and emergency services” to its students and staff. 

An email from Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell on 6 January described help offered by the University. This included financial assistance and “appropriate consideration …to students whose academic progress is adversely affected”. 

Medical student and VCESS volunteer Sarah Burger told Farrago that “Staff and student health is a priority, but the distribution of resources like masks to all students is a more complicated issue…People have lost their homes, land, incomes, valuables and friends/family this summer. It is important that we take this into perspective and maintain [sic] utmost respect for those that are persevering through this crisis.” 

Enrolled in a Summer Term subject, Education student Tessa Gould mentioned the consequences of climate change, saying that this crisis “isn’t just a one-off and it would be good to see a policy around air quality safety”. 

Wiebenga agreed. “Even if [the students] miraculously get the masks and the fire season is over, it’s probably going to happen again. I think it would be worth having at least a small stockpile to be prepared in the future if [the University] can’t be prepared now.”

*The print version of this article contains a mistake. In his interview, Xiao said that outdoor activities on the Wednesday of the first week were seriously considered to be cancelled. This was initially misquoted to say that the events were cancelled. 

Farrago has also granted VCESS organizers their request for a reply.

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