Returning to university last week, my experience has been anything but fun. Despite living in one of the wealthiest Oxford colleges, in a room overlooking the picturesque Christ Church Meadow, I can’t help but feel a horrifying sense of entrapment. Rigorous Covid-19 measures in place throughout the university, and no face-to-face tuition, means my narrow room is to become my world for the next few months. Yet the most isolating aspect of life here is not Oxford’s Covid regulations, but my peers’ approach to the pandemic.
Despite their compliance to the guidelines earlier this year, the vast majority of students no longer seem to care. Each night, I witness huge swathes tumbling out of pubs, restaurants and bars, carelessly brushing shoulders with myself and others on the street. Just this week, a party at my college attended by 40 students was shut down.
You need only take a glance at the news to understand the implications of such behaviour; positive cases have so far been detected at 52 UK universities, prompting the forced self-isolation of over 3000 students. With 39 separate colleges and approximately 24,000 students, it is surely only a matter of time before Oxford witnesses similar outbreaks.
There’s no doubt about it; students have been conned into returning to the ‘Covid campus’, for the painfully obvious reason that universities are desperate to make up for the income they lost last term. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who has had months to prepare for the new term at universities, has failed in his ministerial tasks yet again. And now, students are being denied fresh air, face Orwellian surveillance of their accommodation blocks, and are forced to live off measly food supplies.
But for all these failings and the misery the Covid measures bring, students shouldn’t use this as an excuse to flout the rules. My peers have forgotten that, while there may be hypochondriacs amongst us, there are also diabetics, asthmatics and immuno-deficiency patients, who are at real risk of dying from this disease. Studies have concluded that approximately thirty-per cent of young adults may be ‘medically vulnerable’ to severe illness from Covid-19, a startlingly high figure. And while under-40s make up less than one per cent of coronavirus deaths in England, we are yet to discover the virus’s long-term effects.
Historically, university is a place of camaraderie, of libertarianism, and of friendship. Yet with the vast majority of students now desperate to return to normal life, I am afraid that the vulnerable amongst us will be left behind. It is all too clear that students who wish to follow the guidelines, for health reasons or otherwise, will be outcast. Just a few days ago, a close friend of mine was left dumb-founded as I expressed my wish to social-distance, in the politest possible terms. After digesting my request, she redacted her invitation to meet for coffee, purely on the basis that she ‘couldn’t be bothered’ with such precautions.
Another friend aggressively opposed my wish to follow the rules, arguing that ‘we’re a libertarian society, and we should be able to live as we please.’ But true libertarianism should emphasise the notion of ‘freedom from’ as much as it does ‘freedom to’; this is a point John Stuart Mill made in his On Liberty. As such, true freedom depends on compromise; social-distancing has put this principle to the test, and proved, rather depressingly, that our society is now one of individualism.
Frustratingly, it seems that the student population’s current response to Covid-19 is as predictable as ever. With the erosion of free speech through trends such as ‘no-platforming’, university students now have little appetite for debate. The University of Oxford now prefers a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and the same can be said for its students’ approach to the pandemic.
Regardless of my wish to follow the guidelines, if students continue to behave as though there is no virus, it is inevitable that our efforts will be in vain. In as rebellious an atmosphere as this, I have no doubt that coronavirus will likely become the new freshers’ flu, caught by each and every student in college. With studies showing that around eighty-per cent of cases in young people are asymptomatic, universities that have not already arranged routine testing of students will undoubtedly see infection rates spiral out of control.
Now I’m not boring, nor particularly sensible, and I miss student club nights just as much as the next person. But it seems reasonable to me that we should rein in our reckless behaviour now, in order to prevent a potentially disastrous second lockdown.
In these coming weeks, it's time for my fellow students to adopt an attitude of compromise; we may all have differing opinions, but it is vital that we respect those who wish to protect their health, and look out for those students who are vulnerable. It is a frightening and frustrating time for everyone, and as such it is more important than ever that we demonstrate mutual care and respect.
Felicity Graham is a final year undergraduate at Oxford