The Upside Down World of Student Life in the Covid era
Caitlin Young, 2nd Year Queen’s PPE Student
My landlord bought my flat a new dryer when the original broke only a month into our tenancy. The new one came with a guarantee. A guarantee from the landlord that, should it break down on his student tenants again, they would send someone to fix it or deliver a new one. We applied for this specific apartment for a myriad of reasons: for a start, it had a dishwasher, which would prevent flatmate fights over dishes. We were next-door neighbours with the Holylands Spar, an institution. Most importantly, we were a five-minute walk away from campus. We are all second-year students at Queen’s University, all studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and all sold on Queen’s – for the proximity to home, distance from home, hands-on learning, and a university that seemed to genuinely care for its student population.
On the 4th of June 2020, all QUB students received an email with the subject:
‘Our Campus Commitment: Offering you a safe campus experience in 2020/21’.
It is seven months later. The tone of that subject, at first sounding full of promise, now feels caustic. The nature of a guarantee is a promise: if the object breaks, something will be done to fix it. A commitment feels subject to change; even commitments carved into stone are rarely kept. Most of us, by this point in the summer, were exhausted. I am usually a good documenter. Like today, for example, the 9th of December, I can tell you that this time last year I had just finished up a final essay for PAI1006: World Politics, because I had a social media reminder of some blurry videos I took when I was in my post-submission-drunk-celebration-haze. Then I went through my social media memories from coming home to Dublin in March, to when it was legal to sit in a friend’s garden, to see what I captured in the period of only seeing my parents. There I found the video of the ICU nurse’s dog who we find ourselves minding, running around our garden. Pictures of watercolour-wash looking skies, some evidence of the books I bought, and themed zoom calls I attended. By June, I would believe anything anyone told me about the future. That email made me believe my future held a return to lecture halls. I saw myself being back in the stuffy seminar room my classes always seem relegated to. I had yet to readjust my viewpoint of safety.
I still have difficulty remembering what March was like, when these emails from the communications office started. This was a time when safety was wondering who would walk me home from a night out. The only memory social media offers me is a video of my face, half obscured by my duvet, some text hovering around me, lamenting over my fever. This was from the day I woke up feverish, unable to speak, with difficulty breathing and a migraine that made me cry any time I looked at a screen. I do not know if I had Covid-19. What I do know is that I received an email when my painkiller combination offered me just enough relief to email tutors about my absence, one which began very comfortingly:
Important update: COVID-19 (coronavirus).
‘We have been informed by the Public Health Agency of a presumptive positive case of COVID-19 (coronavirus) within our University community. We are working closely with the authorities to ensure that the individual receives the best care.’
I still remember that tears came to the fore whenever I spoke. I called the university GP and begged for a COVID test and was told that I could have an appointment in two weeks for a check-up. I have some recollection of coming to consciousness while slumped in the shower sometime after trying to wash off the fever sweat that had seeped through all my clothes and bedsheets. It is December now, and I’ve yet to have a COVID test.
On October 14th, after being in classes on campus for a total of four hours, another email from the communications office came through. By this point I had received thirteen emails from them since March, ranging from face coverings and the StopCovid NI App, to the chancellor’s remarks on Black Lives Matter and disciplinary action taken against students. At this point I was numbed to the news brought by that red banner and the tone of the Vice Chancellor. In essence, the email reads:
‘Important update in relation to your studies’
‘The executive, in all their wisdom, has decided to screw you even further, because as you all know this is your fault anyway. We would like to inform you that we will be complying with the screwing.
Lots of love.
p.s don’t ask about a refund’
A month ago my flatmate came in from work, one of the few students I know who hasn’t been furloughed, and told us the apartment at the front of the building had COVID. It was the first we were hearing of it. I tried to get a test, but the Executive’s new campaign had just been released about not getting tested unless you had symptoms. When I got in touch with the SU, they had to break it to me that the university had no testing system in place yet, that there was simply a test centre on campus. I was trying to go home for the first time in two months that week and put it off again, not wanting to risk anyone’s safety.
One month away from home was fine. There was some teary homesickness around week three that was easily resolved. Two months away from home and I would snap at my Northern Irish flatmates who would tell me how nice their visits back home were. Three months away and I would swap my mental state for how I felt during March in a heartbeat. Leaving the flat felt like an impossible task. My friends had to coerce me to eat. I could barely get through ten minutes of an online lecture. When I did find the will to leave the flat, I would find myself tripping easily or wandering into traffic. My last clear memory of Belfast is having to be pulled back from crossing the road by a man I didn’t know, also waiting by the crossing. I didn’t realize why until three PSNI cars came racing by sirens ablaze.
Finally, I broke. Two days without eating, a long weekend of panic attacks and a call to my mother sounding so distraught that she thought someone had died. A few days later, my mum came to pick me up, and the relief of seeing her paralleled the feeling of seeing my dad the day after my fever broke in March, coming to take me home.
‘Launch of on-campus asymptomatic testing pilot programme’.
By this point I believed myself unable to feel screwed over. There reaches a point where life wrings you out to the point you can’t feel another twist. But for some reason, reading this email while cooped up in my childhood bedroom, texting friends that I wouldn’t be able to see them for two weeks – but more like a month because of when deadlines fell – this email stung. The sting came from the fact there hadn’t been a hint, no heads up, no assurance that testing is coming soon, so please hold off on going home. I know I’m not the only one who planned an exodus around this time. Despite everything, I would have stayed in Belfast the extra week just to know I wouldn’t be giving my parents COVID, to be able to see my friends even while two meters apart.
“It was how communication had worked all year: you had to be in the know if you wanted to have any idea about what the next week held.”Caitlin Young
While everything else felt out of control, I always wanted to believe that we would be kept in the loop, but I spent most of the semester receiving second-hand news from tutors before online seminars, and class reps in group chats. It was how communication had worked all year: you had to be in the know if you wanted to have any idea about what the next week held. You had to be friends with someone who had an auntie in Stormont, know someone who worked in the SU building and overheard something they felt they shouldn’t, or had a friend in a post-grad program who had heard what management was saying from frustrated lecturers.
When our dryer broke, my flatmates forgot to tell me before I put a load of laundry in. I was frustrated and apathetic and allowed the laundry to stay damp in the washer. I forgot about it for a week. It was the same set of bedsheets that absorbed my sweat in March. Mildew had set in. Incense was burned, scented candles lit, the fire alarm nearly set off. The sheets were washed three times. We were still in the lurch with the dryer, so I strung them up in the bathroom, between the shower and the door. They eventually dried out. Another reason we had applied for the flat: a ‘no damp’ guarantee. I should know, my room is directly over the industrial extractor fans that keep that guarantee and add to the Holylands ambient noise I fall asleep to.
It has been three months back on campus and reports of those still braving life in Belfast tell there are lines around the library, the students who work the student bar aren’t on furlough, and what’s going to happen next semester is unclear. The rot only sets in when you fail to remember or fail to care. It’s hard to tell which is the case with those who promised us a safe campus return this year.