By Christian Shushok and Dixon Cline
When the Covid-19 Pandemic was beginning in the winter of 2019, we knew that it could last a month or a millennium. Either our institutions of power and production would mobilize towards a victory that would be quick and absolute or slow and pyrrhic. The administration of the University of the South has chosen the latter.
At the time of writing this, there have been over 600,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S. alone. These deaths are recognized as operational and infrastructural failures by the Trump Administration and various state governments which have received ample criticism throughout 2020 for mishandling pandemic responses. During this time, the University of the South was acknowledged as a shining example of how the spread of Covid-19 could be stopped with thorough institutional action. Yet, the email sent to the University community by Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety on September 4, 2021, expresses a major institutional shift. Operating with “the expectation that all students and employees take personal responsibility for their own health and, importantly, to do their part to help protect our community” is a grave mistake.
The notion that one can remain healthy through personal responsibility alone is a myth, and this pandemic has provided ample evidence of that. There are plenty of stories of people who did everything right according to institutional guidelines, yet were infected by members of their household who were essential workers or were not taking the same precautions. Though we know that it is impossible and undesirable to be fully isolated, there is security in having the safety net of regular testing, quarantine space, gathering limits, and distance learning options. These have all been gutted by the University. We fear for immunocompromised and at-risk community members, as well as for the children of the community who are too young to get vaccinated. For those wanting a guarantee of safety, their only option is complete distrust of everyone and total personal isolation, a strategy that would affect their mental health. Every classmate could be a threat, every neighbor a risk, and every friend a potential carrier. This shatters our concept of Ecce Quam Bonum, the cornerstone of virtue at the University.
It is still possible for us to avoid this potentially catastrophic direction and live reasonably well on campus. Allowing virtual learning, maintaining testing for unvaccinated people, and developing University quarantining spaces are necessary steps to protect the health of our community.
The University’s recent decision maintains a lack of intersectionality in its approach that will devastate marginalized and vulnerable communities. In an email sent to students currently in quarantine, Dean Lauren Goodpaster asked students to vacate current quarantine housing within 48 hours and return to their communal living spaces or homes. Additionally, the email told students in need of food that they were “…free to go to McClurg or go through a drive-through, etc…” a suggestion that jeopardizes fellow students, as well as low-wage workers both on campus and in the surrounding communities.
For many students, simply returning home is not an option due to socio-economic restraints, immunocompromised family members, unsafe living conditions, distance, or regionally overwhelmed healthcare systems. With this decision, the University has endangered residents of the South Cumberland plateau, who like many in Appalachia, do not have access to reliable healthcare or the means to quarantine safely. Sewanee’s decision may be sustainable for the most able-bodied and wealthy among us, but for too many in our community, it stands only as a demonstration of their expendability.
Months ago, vaccination was proposed as an end to these problems. Unfortunately, the rise of the Delta variant has proven to be a hindrance to this dream. While vaccination does significantly reduce the risk that an infection will prove fatal, it still has flaws, as all vaccines do. The past week has shown that breakthrough cases are not as rare as we have thought, and while young people are less at risk there are still serious long-term effects of Covid that we must contend with. Some immunocompromised people and all children under 12 are not eligible to receive the vaccine. The Delta variant is considerably more contagious than the original strain of Covid, and while severe cases among children are relatively rare, there have been fatalities. Because of this, and the university’s decision to halt virtual learning, the administration has callously put faculty, staff, and their families at unprecedented risk not even two weeks into this school year. This risk also applies to community members with no close connection to the University as Franklin County only has a 32% vaccination rate. Let us be clear, we deeply resent the resistance to vaccination that has been promoted by populist politicians in the South. However, despite the resentment with which many liberals speak of their conservative, Southern countrymen, it is our conviction that despite political differences, our people do not deserve to die for their ignorance.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen Covid-19 mutate to new, more contagious variants, of which Delta is the most prominent. It is not unfounded to claim that in letting Covid become endemic, we are allowing more dangerous and vaccine-resistant variants to propagate. In chasing normalcy, we are running towards danger.
Critics may say that our views are alarmist and a call for a tyrannical end to the liberties of collegiate youth, but it is because of our love of this place that we write to save her. Attending Sewanee has been one of the great joys of our lives and is a privilege unrivaled by any other life experience. The friends we have made, the memories forged, and the topics studied, shine golden in our hearts. It is with this love that we wish to fight against this pandemic: a neighborly love not to see our fellows destroyed with reckless abandon. While there is freedom to enjoy life, there must also be freedom from disease. We wish to see neither death nor suffering.
To battle a pandemic, we must be willing to make necessary concessions. Our gatherings, physical connections with loved ones, and the very socialization which makes us human must all be altered in order to protect human life. However, while we must give up many things, we can never allow ourselves to sacrifice morality, ethics, and virtue. The University’s decision to halt testing, end isolation, and replace our Covid infrastructure with a policy of personal responsibility alone, our University has decided not just to fall back, but rather to surrender in the face of hardship due to exhaustion, finances, or a lack of care. Though we are not advocating for an extreme policy, we are asking for an institutional effort to protect us all. Together, we can continue to weather and even thrive in this storm, but only if we remember that above all our petty concerns must be our commitment to the highest virtue of all: to love and protect the people who dwell beside us.