Thompson Rivers University

Law and science combine to answer vital COVID-19 questions

January 27, 2021

Dr. Ruby Dhand, Faculty of Law.

COVID-19 has taken a tremendous toll on those living in long-term care homes, assisted living facilities and group homes, and many of those who reside in these places are people with disabilities who are disproportionately impacted.

Thompson Rivers University (TRU) researchers Dr. Ruby Dhand (Law) and Dr. Dipesh Prema (Chemistry), along with Dr. Tess Sheldon (University of Windsor, Faculty of Law) are working with ARCH Disability Law Centre (a recognized leader in disability rights advocacy) to understand COVID-19 barriers to justice for those who live with disabilities in these congregate care settings.

The research is funded through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Engage Grant and will take place over the course of the next year, with six research assistants from the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Science participating in the project.

Dr. Dipesh Prema, Department of Chemistry

Read: SSHRC funds new research projects to meet the needs of organizations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, including those related to COVID-19

Last spring, SSHRC took aim against the pandemic by creating a special initiative for COVID-19 research. This special call resulted in 111 new grants, totaling more than $2.5 million nationally. The grants provide short-term and timely support for partnered research activities that will inform decision-making at organizations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors nationwide.

According to Dhand, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an urgent need for multidisciplinary research that contributes to law reform and scientific policy reform.

“I am so proud that we get to collaborate with ARCH, and to form this partnership at such a critical moment where we can create disability-informed legal responses to the pandemic,” says Dhand, whose research program broadly explores issues relating to access to justice. “We know these community organizations are going to use this research to increase access to justice and that is going to impact the people who need it the most.”

In this case, access to justice is limited by visitor bans, lockdowns, and reductions in regular services that those who live in these facilities depend on. Discrimination laid bare during the pandemic is also evident by the rationing of ventilators and intensive care treatment, disproportionately deprioritizing people with disabilities. 

“People with disabilities have been silenced and deprioritized. We have identified a need to increase access to justice among this vulnerable population,” says Dhand.

 “It is very exciting to be able to support ARCH in this way, as they have been leading litigation regarding visitor bans, access to community supports and health care, all of which challenges the idea of ableism and disability injustice.” 

Law Foundation expands project to prisons, detention centres

Dhand and Prema are also working together on a community-based, multidisciplinary research project funded by the Law Foundation of BC, investigating access to justice for those with mental health and substance use issues in BC’s mental health facilities, prisons and detention centres during the pandemic.

These two distinct projects are similar in that they both explore access to justice for vulnerable populations who are living in congregate care settings during the pandemic. 

Making the projects unique is the scientific lens brought by Prema. The collaboration addresses a knowledge gap that exists between science and the law. 

“Lawyers are often concerned about the science behind some of these policies,” says Prema, who refers to the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and its impact on virus transmission as just one example of science informing policy.

“Ultimately, we would like to create a TRU Science and Law research centre, a hub where all of these questions can be answered, and where students who are studying in science or law could  participate in multidisciplinary research,” says Prema. 

More information
Dr. Ruby Dhand, associate professor
TRU Faculty of Law

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