This post is about mostly personal circumstances / issues, as well as current affairs. If that’s not what you want, turn back now.

At the start of the current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, we were told that “flattening the curve” was a good idea – i.e. attempting to limit the spread of the disease by staying at home, wearing face coverings, etc. was a necessary step we should all take in order to prevent the national health services from getting overwhelmed (leading to an excess of deaths of people who could otherwise be helped).

A significant number of months have passed since March, and a new wave of unsuspecting secondary school graduates have descended on the UK’s universities1 – but, obviously, since there’s still a pandemic going on, things are different from the way they used to be. Pretty much all universities have new precautions to limit the spread of the disease, including things like

  • grouping students into (logical) “households”, and restricting interaction between said households
  • enforcing social distancing requirements
  • enforcing face covering usage
  • limiting the number of students that can be in the same place at one time (in line with the nationwide “rule of six”)
  • getting rid of all face-to-face tuition, and moving everything online
  • adding a curfew to, or closing, pubs and social spaces

Some of these precautions involve more sacrifices on the part of the students than others; wearing face coverings is relatively zero-cost, and has been shown to limit the spread of the disease quite significantly2. However, the goal of the overwhelming majority of the restrictions is clear: limit social interaction as far as practicable. (This ‘makes sense’, because social interaction is how the virus is spread.)

The point I want to express here is that having that as a goal in the context of universities is somewhat irresponsible, and seems to completely ignores the mental health concerns of an entire year’s worth of students at university right now3. Most students have left the (hopefully relatively comfortable) environment of secondary school to come to university – sometimes in an entirely new city, or indeed country. These students typically don’t have many people they can talk to once they arrive, having left the vast majority of their friends behind from school; instead, they must somehow discover new people, usually by having a lot of spontaneous interactions until they’re able to bed in and start to establish some friendships.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this process is not compatible with the above stated goal of not having much social interaction.

However, what I think is particularly irresponsible is the lack of discussion surrounding the consequences of not letting this process play out as normal. The need for students to socialize and make friends is invariant; the feeling of loneliness is inherent to being human and isn’t going away any time soon, so people will (attempt to) socialize to feel less lonely, especially when placed in an unfriendly new environment. Examples of consequences arising from a lack of social interactions among students include

  • greater incidences of mental health problems, as loneliness creates new or exacerbates existing issues
  • a reduced ability to even notice and help with such problems, as remote learning can mask all sorts of issues that are more easily recognizable in person
  • reduced academic performance and ability, due to previously mentioned mental health problems
  • a greater dropout rate, leading to reduced income for universities (some of which are already struggling to stay afloat)
  • in the extreme case, greater incidences of suicides

It’s also the case that not everyone is perfectly rule-abiding. While more meek students might follow restrictions and suffer the associated consequences, others will flagrantly disobey them, a fact which has consequences of its own:

  • instead of socializing in ‘controlled’ environments, under the purview of (e.g.) student wellbeing officers, students will socialize elsewhere (e.g. a random park)
    • in these ‘uncontrolled’ environments, a greater prevalence of dangerous behaviours (excessive drinking, drug use, etc.) would be expected
    • …but since these are the only opportunities available to undersocialized students, more students might end up taking unwise risks than would otherwise
    • there is already evidence to suggest more students are taking drugs and dying from it through precisely this mechanism4
  • from the perspective of the virus, the replacements for the now-banned opportunities to socialize are likely a lot worse, increasing net transmission

A lot of the problems here tie into greater issues with the discussion of the pandemic in the media and elsewhere; a lot of people seem to think that the worrying graph of growing cases is unquestionably something that must be dealt with immediately (perhaps with a lockdown, which is even worse for students). Don’t get me wrong – COVID-19 is a deadly disease, and must not be underestimated. Letting the disease run completely unchecked throughout the population, without any restrictions whatsoever, is a terrible idea and would kill many people unnecessarily; a very contested document called the Great Barrington declaration calls for something akin to that (albeit with protections in place for vulnerable members of society).

The reality is that it’s very difficult to come to a decision, and neither extremist view is correct; making everyone sit on their hands until a vaccine is available is stupid, but so is letting the disease run wild. There’s much we don’t know about the impacts of the virus, including whether or not it has long-term health implications for certain groups (and the conditions under which such long-term complications might arise) – but sensationalizing (e.g. evocative news headlines that attempt to instil fear as to the deadliness of the disease) does not help us come to a reasoned conclusion about risk.

To conclude, then, I believe the evidence to support strict COVID-19 restrictions in UK universities is questionable, and a re-think about the rationale for, and the consequences of, such strict restrictions is sorely required. It’s really unclear whether the benefits conferred by severely limiting social interaction (at least, imposing rules that attempt to achieve such) are worth the consequences of doing so – heck, it’s even unclear whether people even follow the rules enough to limit transmission at all (and the recent outbreaks in universities across the nation confirm that).

A lack of humane thinking seems to be the case amongst those who impose said restrictions; the problem cannot be viewed as a simple mathematical calculation of how to reduce cases (if reducing cases is even something worth attempting to do!), but one that leads to significant human suffering for those affected. With the world being more divided and polarised than ever, it’s worth trying to be empathetic – to both see the fear on the part of those pushing for a lockdown and limitation of cases, and to recognize the crushing impact restrictions have on the restricted.

  1. I’m one of these, of course, which is why I’m writing this. 

  2. Even if you disagree with the evidence here, face coverings are still basically zero-cost – you really don’t sacrifice much by wearing one! 

  3. If you disagree with me, please read the whole article first before getting angry. 

  4. I can’t find a citation for this, so take this claim with a pinch of salt.