WHEN Covid-19 struck last March, we students understood that our lives at university would change and our debauchery, fun and academic engagement would be curtailed. We accepted the need for online learning at home and isolation from our friends so that our nation of scientists and politicians could properly grasp the threat of the virus and act accordingly. This was Britain after all; we were sturdy, willing and trustworthy.
I am a second-year student of politics and quantitative research at a Russell Group university. Looking back on the summer, when I could sunbathe and read between Zoom classes whilst believing what I was sacrificing was worth it, I grimace with envy.
We students were lured back to university in the autumn under false pretences. I was promised in-person seminars and online lectures. Perfect, I thought, still a chance for debate and engagement while being a compromise for those who didn’t feel safe. Call me reckless, but I wanted to get Covid as soon as possible so I could live my life again. Yet in my first online class I was told ‘No! What on earth are you talking about? We expect you to never set foot on campus ever again.’ I was never to meet a single one of my teachers. I was fortunate: I didn’t travel across the world to come back to a lie.
Library hours were restricted to four hours per week, socially distanced, with compulsory mask-wearing actively enforced (I want to point out that in a restaurant you were not required to wear one as you were sitting down for long periods of time). The students’ union suddenly started advocating more online classes for all courses, even though I never heard a single student express the desire to be sitting behind their laptop, wrapped in a sleeping bag due to the absence of decent heating, trying to engage with a landscape of blank screens and poor connection. I tried to write an article for the student newspaper about how our societies should not be disbanded, but the publishers replied that I would have to change my opinion, otherwise they could not, in good faith, release it for reading.
Ironically the university didn’t seem to recognise the implications. Last year, we were told that students who get firsts always attended their in-person lectures no matter how jaded they were after a night of drinking. Those students truly recognised the importance of the education they were given. An abundance of societies was available free of charge. Now, it seems that watching online lectures like Netflix is completely acceptable and of course the value of teaching doesn’t change. I pay £9,000 a year for facilities I cannot use, a few hours of Zoom a week and a reading list. I pay rent for a house I am not allowed to go back to. I cannot debate in cafés with my course-mates about how good or horrible the week’s readings were. That is just the material side of being a student.
The wellbeing cost is far greater. We all know young people are experiencing a mental health epidemic, whether you think it’s because of ‘capitalism’ or social media. Now anxiety, suicidal tendencies and bad drug habits are the norm. I am a conservative by nature, I try to adapt and react to my situation, but this causes my political monster to roar.
Police roam our streets every night. I have been questioned about why I am carrying alcohol on the street after 10pm. A neighbour called the police when they saw some of my housemates come through our front door with a bottle of whisky and four tins of beer. The police turned up expecting a party, to see me having a nap and my housemates playing FIFA in the living room. On another occasion we were fined £100 each for having a total of 16 people in our eight-person house, again after a neighbour called the police. I understand the police must enforce rules and we must pay the price for being caught. That is the nature of law and order. But when the police turn up seemingly embarrassed at the rules they have to act on (I asked them how they felt about it), it makes you question what kind of ridicule has gripped us.
We all understand we must keep people safe. I have never denied that Covid is a threat. Half of my degree is about analysing data so I understand why numbers scare people (I’m sure an hour with my tutor would do wonders for Professor Ferguson). But locking away students, most of whom who have already had it, is insane. This hugely disadvantages the mentally and financially vulnerable. I’ve had depression and anxiety since I was 16 and the existential dread of waking up every day tears me apart, as I’m sure it does for anyone with those tendencies, student or not.
As John Stuart Mill wrote: ‘Let a person have nothing to do with his country and he will not care for it.’ He’s right. The incessant restrictions on our lives at a time when we are meant be reckless, learning, meeting people and seeing places, has led me not to trust my country as a place where I feel its citizens can thrive.
PS: I developed Covid within a week of being back at university in September. It was not, surprisingly, deadly to me or my housemates. I simply felt tired, couldn’t taste my food and had a slight headache. Compared with having mumps a few months before, which knocked me out for several days, Covid was tame.