Balliol College, Oxford
Opinion

Student-life in the pandemic

‘The impossible task of being a student during a pandemic’

This has obviously been a difficult year for everyone. We know that, we’ve been told it a gazillion times. Some have lost friends, families, houses, jobs and most of us have had to fight tooth and nail to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.

I just can’t help returning to the idea that University Students have been specifically victimised during the pandemic by the Government and our University Governing bodies, especially this term. To be promised a return to normal, a return to friends, fun and the inevitable volume of work that accompanies an Oxford term; then for all but the work to disappear seems unfair.

I am one of the lucky unlucky who have not had COVID-19 itself but have had to deal with the consequences of the restrictions in place. I have undergone multiple 2 week isolation periods, all of which have affected my mental and physical health. Alone in my room I would become anxious and dizzy and after my last lockdown I emerged from my prison to find my long-sighted vision gone and my fitness vastly reduced. Of course, this is nowhere near the worst case scenario. I know this. I just don’t feel like our University quite knows the impact that the coronavirus restrictions have on the welfare of our community.

Recently, I was given a disciplinary notice for an infraction of the COVID-19 regulations. It was the first time I was caught but not the first time I broke the rules. I was faced with the uncomfortable realisation that I regretted my actions, understood their significance but knew deep down that I would repeat them. Here at Oxford, I see no one who could be hospitalized or die from the virus, only healthy students. I feel guilty about breaking the rules but I allow myself the occasional leniency because I reach a breaking point when I just want to relax and  feel like I need to have moments of normalcy. Most of the people I see have just recovered from COVID-19 this term yet we are still not allowed to meet. All I want to do is be a nice friendly face and come over when people ask, and I do, but then I feel guilty and lock myself in my room for days to mitigate the risk.

I am so grateful to the University for allowing us back and facilitating our return, but I feel like staff members are somewhat out of touch with the difficulties of the student experience. It is in no way their fault. I do not blame the University or my college, they just don’t seem to understand. 

My message to the University would be, we all occasionally break the rules. They are ultimately impossible to follow for the student population. I don’t know one person who hasn’t at least broken the rules once this term. I run into multiple people not in my household outside; my building has multiple households within it that can’t help but cross paths; I am physically incapable of following every COVID-19 restriction. It makes me scared that I could spread the virus so easily but there is nothing I can do about it. If 100 of us live in the same accommodation- how can we avoid each other constantly?

I understand policing a rave but a dinner party? A short conversation? Is this viable for the future? Does this achieve anything in a population of people who have already had the virus?

So then, what should we do? My resolve is to follow the rules that I deem crucial to other people’s safety, limit my social pool and make sure that I am tested before I return home to at-risk family members. Other than that, I have to break some of the rules to feel human. I have to prioritise my mental health when I am at breaking point.

It is such a difficult situation and I feel powerless and selfish. But I would rather that than completely collapse, especially when I see other people socialising harmlessly. I just don’t want to feel alone in the place I have found community, the place where I have found my lifelong friends. The student spread of coronavirus has been proven not to affect the local community of Oxford, not have any serious implications, yet we students find ourselves in impossible, stressful situations daily with no rest-bite. How is this sustainable?

Colleges, do we really have no common sense?

“10 O’clock. I arrive at College. As I pass the side entrance, I do my daily double-take at the staff trudging in and out, reminding myself that for a reason unknown to me the one-way system only applies to us. I suck it up and head to the main entrance, getting my mask on in preparation. As I enter, the maskless staff at the lodge, sharing a cosy confined space (and definitely the same air), gaze at me intently, looking for a reason to exercise their newly imbued powers. I wonder through the first quad in bemusement: is the open air here really so different to what I was breathing 3 metres behind the entrance, where I was free to swallow my fill without tasting my own breath? As I pass the staff who I just saw enter from the side entrance, I realise that mask wearing also only applies to us. I enter the JCR with my morning coffee and I share glances with anyone who looks up from their morning ‘classes’. As I gauge the room, I am met with welcoming smiles, confirming “I won’t tell if you don’t”. I uncover my face, and my smile back shows that I have accepted this deal.”

I wanted to paint a picture of a typical morning that I experienced at my college this term. Not even 5 minutes passes before I am left baffled and asking myself why us students must put up with fiddly rules, and yet those who run our colleges flagrantly disobey them. This is just a small sketch of the petty inconsistencies of college-enforced rules, and the list certainly goes on. So when I am caught for the umpteenth time speaking a little too close to a friend of mine on the premises, forgive me for fostering some resentment. Afterall, we have paid full tuition for a ‘meh’ university experience at best, we have been scapegoated by the politicians who sent us back here, and we get fined and tracked by the place we are supposed to consider a home away from home.

I am sure there are people who refuse to follow particularly tedious rules as a small form of rebellion. I might even agree with this group on one thing: if there were more relaxed rules at university, I would more likely follow them. But for me, disobeying rules is not necessarily out of spite, rather the analysis paralysis of attempting to adhere to every tiny instruction mixed with the pragmatism of trying to go about my day. I just don’t have the time or effort to be constantly monitoring how far away I stand from someone, how many people are in a room with me, where I can and cannot sit down….

I completely understand that people would and should be concerned about bringing university Covid spikes back to their families. Every death is a painful tragedy, and my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones because of this pandemic. But with 1 in 4 adults experiencing depressive symptoms during the first lockdown[1], the average national death rate being no higher than the average for the last five years and the death rate for elderly people actually being currently lower than at the same time last year[2], I think everyone is starting to rightfully question whether all the rules are really worth it.

What is more, strict Covid rules simply DO NOT WORK. Everyone I know understands this! Yet for some bizarre reason, we are forced to perform this silly charade. We all know that the risks to our lives are tiny. If we choose to just stick around with people our own age (which is what happens at university anyway), and isolate as a matter of courtesy to close friends and family who don’t want to get ill, I think we can lift the veil on many of the false pretences. We all already treat Covid-19 rules with a pinch of salt, it is about time our university did too.


[1] https://www.samh.org.uk/about-us/news-and-blogs/new-study-reveals-mental-health-impact-of-initial-lockdown-period

[2] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8971669/What-DONT-tell-Covid-facts-twisted-strike-fear-hearts.html?ito=amp_twitter_share-top&fbclid=IwAR0C5wxefKN2yrCaURNORcsKKGz_Ooj68kQhgChfhDuP_cMQTm-RaLC46tw