Vulnerability in the Times of Pandemic
As we exit our second lockdown, with many students turning their thoughts towards home and travel arrangements after a long, arduous time away from family and parents, it seems apt to reflect on the difficult challenges and trying experiences that many of us have been forced to face during these unprecedented trials. Students have been amongst the worst hit by the pandemic’s afflictions, with many of the deteriorative effects on mental health, anxiety and loneliness that university usually causes have been exacerbated and heightened by the isolating edicts of lockdown rules. Many of us have been locked in our rooms or houses, barred from social connectivity, zoned into our laptops from dawn to dusk. Many of us have spent much of this period by ourselves. Never before have students faced levels of isolation and disconnectedness like this.
Perhaps those affected worse by the restrictions and new circumstances we have to work around are the disabled students at university, those who have already had to work around and navigate issues of limited access and discrimination through their university careers as it is. The limited welfare support and counselling that the university would normally have provided for our disabled network of students has in this period become even more unreachable and difficult to access. With many standard services shifted online, and of course a large portion of our teaching shifting onto Zoom and other online learning platforms, the normal problems faced by the average disabled student have become even more of a challenge in the wake of this pandemic. It is thus important we step back and reacknowledge the added difficulties that come with being a disabled students and reassess the ways in which we can lessen these troubles and produce more accessible solutions to disconnected learning. Innovative engineering solutions perhaps presents a path into making learning more accessible, and to lessen the gap that disabled students no doubt feel.
The fact that we are now coming up on a year of lockdown seems for many of us a daunting and titillating fact — a sad and sorrowful reminder of the tribulations that have become commonplace, the restrictions on our humanity that have become accepted as norm. Where once we would breathe and freely intersperse with our friends, now that long forgotten social world that the student was once part of has faded to an inexpressible memory, an echo of an echo.
Yet the wide-reaching effects of coronavirus on our student (disabled) bodies is to be felt in a plethora of social and private fields. Not just the fear of contracting the virus, but the far-reaching and insistently-felt effects of it in destabilizing lives, decentring the already chaotic experience that university can manifest as. Nora Caplan-Bricker wrote an interesting article in The New Yorkerduring the second lockdown last year, interviewing disabled students at the University of Massachusetts. “I would be more scared of losing my housing and having to go back home” Maldonado, a student at the university, said. “That seems like the greater hardship.” Not only the mental strain of having to access one’s teaching via online resources, but the very real disconnect that coronavirus offers is being shown here. For students like Maldonado, this disconnect that the virus is forcing us into is representative of a complete destabilizing of their lives. “For Maldonado, going home would mean moving in a with his father, who rents a single room in an apartment near Boston from a family with two young children”. The sequestering away from university, the losing of that valuable and perhaps all-too-easily taken for granted opportunity and breathing space offered by a place in a university halls of accommodation constitutes a return to the often strained, claustrophobic spaces many of us have at home. To go from the individuality involved in owning one’s own space, to lose that intellectual and literal room of one’s own, is a catastrophic reality that many of us are undergoing now. For many of us, that adventurous first step into university means a relishing of one’s own individualism — the simple, often understated right to be your person, make your own decision, and rule your own life. The threat of returning home is the violent yanking away of these now treasured liberties.
The pandemic, as The New Yorker notes, has exacerbated differences and disparities in socio-economic divisions between students like few other social and global phenomena preceding it. “When campus is open, administrators can imagine that students coexist in the same, equal environment: sleeping in the same dorms, eating in the same dining halls, studying in the same libraries with assistance from the same staff and faculty.” Though rarely conceptualized as such, the medium of a university halls to offer a negotiated, partial equalizing force has been missed by some students. What before, at least in the most ideal, aimed-for sense, been a project that offered an equal university experience to students on the grounds of homogeneity of quality of life and daily resources available has been reduced in the wake of the pandemic, to this terrifying, frightful awareness of the same university struggles, the same tribulations and stresses that the academic world of university have demanded, faced in the ultimately disparate and widely ranging levels of privilege at work. Coronavirus, whilst perhaps offering at first an equalizing rhetoric (recall many adverts asking us to be in this together, that we are all vulnerable and responsible for the whole), instead makes even more painful the divides between us, the hypocrisies dormant in this group-responsibility mode of thinking. The New Yorker, puts it perhaps quite succinctly: “when college moved online, it became harder to miss the difference between the student frustrated to be trapped in her childhood bedroom and the one attempting to take an exam in his car”. In the face of this pandemic, it is essential we reconsider and develop a new, more persistent awareness, of the diversity of backgrounds, and the pitfalls that the underprivileged have become even more vulnerable to.