Many college students bear brunt of coronavirus


March 19, 2020

Editor’s note: CHN Intern Olivia Maurer is a junior at Cornell University, where she is majoring in Human Biology, Health, and Society, with a minor in Global Health. Voices for Human Needs is examining the effects of coronavirus on low-income and other vulnerable populations. This post is one in a continuing series.

Nearly two months ago, I was packing my bags for the Spring semester of my junior year. I remember checking items off my early-January to-do list like every college student. I frantically sifted through my clothes and belongings, judging what I could and could not pack into the back of my mom’s Volkswagen. I coordinated with my roommate about who was bringing pots and pans and who was bringing a shower curtain. I made sure my course roster for the upcoming semester was free of errors and I made the semesterly pilgrimage to Costco with my parents to stock up on pasta, snacks, and lots of coffee. I had heard of coronavirus, but it still felt distant. Its relevance drifted in and out of my life through the occasional news headline, chat with a friend, or meme on Twitter.

Fast forward to this week, and 157 countries, including the United States, have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19. According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports, there have been over 218,631 confirmed cases globally and around 84,113 people have recovered. Over 9,345 of these are in the U.S. The outbreak is a topic of daily conversation, I wince a little bit upon hearing a particularly phlegmy cough on the Metro, and my school is telling me to go home. Numerous universities have issued statements conveying their decision to transition from in-person to online instruction and their request for students to complete such instruction from their permanent residences rather than on campus. Nearly 25 major universities have cancelled or suspended classes so far, and others are following suit.

On Friday March 20, Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., suspended classes for three weeks after sending students home for the spring semester. Photo credit: Heather Ainsworth/ The New York Times

These measures have been met with confusion, panic, and lots of questions. Will our tuition be prorated to reflect the in-person instruction we’re losing? Many students rely on their on-campus jobs to afford tuition in the first place. What happens when these are taken away? What about our housing and our meal plans, upon which so many of us rely? What if we don’t have access to the internet to complete the semester? What happens when thousands of international students face rigid visa requirements, unsafe home environments, or simply the riskiness of international travel? Even among students travelling domestically, many are not returning to a safe place, whether that is attributed to familial, financial, or medical reasons.

The response of American students everywhere has been anything but silent. Student publications are urging college administrations to offer adequate emotional, financial, and infrastructural support. However, nobody seems to be able to offer adequate information. My university set up a hotline that students could use to express their questions and concerns. Since I’m participating in a domestic “study abroad” program at Cornell’s satellite campus in Washington, D.C., my peers and I found ourselves in a state of limbo after the Ithaca campus announced its closure. We called in to the hotline and were told that our classes would resume, business as usual, following our spring break at the end of March. However, the same day, we were told by our faculty in residence that our program was shutting down, classes were being moved to online instruction, and we were offered no answers about our finances, our assignments and exams, or our options for university support.

This shift introduces additional challenges for foreign students studying in the United States on F visas. They are legally permitted to take only one course online per semester in order to remain in the country. Students on M visas for vocation training aren’t allowed to take any online classes at all. The shift to online instruction is not universally accessible and it has the potential to put international students at a disadvantage.

To stay in America, or go home? Coronavirus pandemic brings stress, fear for international students- many of them decided to fly home when campuses shut down. Photo credit: REUTERS at JFK Airport

Much of the COVID-19 hysteria has invited me to reflect upon the state of our nation and its ability to respond to public health crises. A bill introduced by House Democrats here in Washington providing free COVID-19 testing, paid sick leave, and strengthened unemployment insurance to ease the economic impact of the outbreak on America’s workers did pass both House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, and the President has now signed it. The bill also provides $1.3 billion in emergency nutrition assistance for low-income pregnant women and their children, senior citizens, and food banks, which softens the effect of the outbreak on children whose school meals are no longer available due to closures. However, it only passed after the paid leave provisions were watered down, so fewer businesses would be required to provide leave, and fewer workers would receive it. I am relieved by the results of the final vote, but I cannot help but note that it may be too little, too late for America’s low-wage workers and small businesses.

As a public health student, I have studied what happens when crisis is met with negligence. Flint, Michigan is still recovering from years of lead-contaminated drinking water. In 2019 alone, more than 500 migrants died, mostly along the US-Mexican border. There were more mass shootings across the U.S. in 2019 than days in the year. If we are not proactive against COVID-19, there will be consequences. Yes, this means shutting down universities and taking precautions such as social distancing, but it also means that our administration has a responsibility to protect its people, especially low-wage workers, children and seniors, under- and uninsured people, and our diverse population of Asian Americans who face discrimination and xenophobia. In any case, the president certainly should not be referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus,” and he should be reflecting on the inadequacy and delay of his Coronavirus response.

In January of 2020, President Trump made his first public comments about the novel coronavirus. He was asked whether or not he was worried about a pandemic, to which he responded, ““No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” At this point, COVID-19 was just beginning to make its way around the world. China was on the verge of shutting down the city of Wuhan. In light of this information, the Trump Administration had a series of choices to make. Trump could have responded by increasing the availability of test kits, encouraging Americans to self-quarantine if they had reason to believe they were sick, and producing policy to ensure paid sick leave for America’s workers. It appears that, over the past two months, the administration’s strategy in addressing what is now a pandemic has been to sweep everything under the rug until it all calms down. However, Trump isn’t just sweeping COVID-19 under the rug. He’s turning a blind eye to millions of lives at risk. His failure to take action demonstrates a failure to prioritize public health.

I am disappointed that my education has been interrupted, but I truly fear for the millions of vulnerable people whose incomes and health are threatened.