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  • Samantha Tassillo

“The COVID Question”—Answered

I thought about starting this article with Dear Lady Whistledown or First of all, let me remind you readers that the Writing Center exists or something equally silly and light. I know that jokes (and some great ones at that) were the first thing to come to mind when students saw the letter sitting on McEwen tables on the morning of Thursday, April 14th. And that’s fair. It was a pretty bad letter. But that’s what I find so incredibly interesting about it—what kind of person would risk so much satire and critique just to expose the campus to such an underdeveloped view? Some people suggested to me that the letter might be satire, but it seems far too desperate not to be genuine. To me, it seems like it was written in crisis, put on the tables so early because whoever wrote it really hadn’t slept. But what kind of crisis? From what I piece together, this was penned by someone deeply frustrated by a lack of social connection and control on campus, wanting to follow the rules but yearning for circumstances to be different.

The first thing I notice—and maybe the most important thing—is that this letter is riddled with uncertainty. The first line itself shows every hint of doubt: “After writing the first draft of this letter I went back to my room, flipped through some news breaking on the XE-variant, heard about all the new cases and deleted the draft, deeming it heresy” (italics mine). Why would you start a manifesto with a disclaimer? It explains the anonymity, for sure. They’re deeply afraid to make a statement that might be perceived as wrong—they admit it in the very first sentence by confessing that they might be misguided (and even very recently thought so).

This also explains the ambiguity in recommended policy. Towards the end of the letter, the author calls for “civil disobedience against the mandate,” which I’m assuming means that they want people to come together to stop wearing masks. They say at the beginning, “we all must make a choice. Whether covid exists or it doesn’t.” (I won’t even bother to make the correction that COVID exists whether we act like it does or not.) The author implores us to pick the latter by no longer abiding by pandemic protocol. At the same time, they criticize the Hamilton Administration for not being more strict about COVID policy following spring break: “[T]he school decided that take-home covid tests and no masking were sufficient. They really believed that a bunch of college kids would…be cautious the first week to ‘prevent the spread.’”

What does this tell us? The caution in their words and the resentment of Hamilton acting “conservatively” in their COVID approach points to a real fear of the pandemic. The author is desperate for it to be over, blaming both the students and the Administration for its improper handling. They speak with real contempt about those who have exacerbated outbreaks on campus: “Have you met the average Hamilton student? Their logic is ridiculous…the moment people walk out of class, they go get food, go to a party, or crawl into someone else’s bed.” Okay. They’re frustrated that people aren’t taking COVID seriously. This is odd only because they’re clearly not worried about getting sick—they say that “driving down the hill is more dangerous than getting covid,” and they didn’t even get their flu shot.

This isn’t about sickness on campus. It’s evident by their framing of what masking does—most notably, “crushing community spirit”—that this is a social cry. The greatest boons they’re imagining are the ones they gained when the mask mandate was lifted: “Public spaces became populous, new friendships and acquaintances were made; the community actually felt like one for the first time since covid began.” The mask mandate feels like a social barrier to them, “reducing you to just a mask in the crowd,” partly because it’s harder to understand each other in speech and partly because masks serve as a symbolic gesture to people that it’s better not to socialize. People have their circles, but beyond that, Green Status signals that it’s better not to go up to that acquaintance in Commons and say hello or commission a suite party for the whole campus. Maybe the writer is invited around less now. It feels like they didn’t make the cut—that they’re not worth the risk they carry, just for being human. “[W]ho am I? they ask. “Nobody.” There’s a tell in their language that shows they’re writing about themselves: just how much they use the second person. Every time the word “you” shows up in a manifesto like this, it’s to gain solidarity. But that means the author must share these sentiments: “If you feel sad/alone/fearful suddenly, it’s not your midterm nor just you. COVID is never going away so welcome to your new life.” But it’s the author who feels trapped—they feel sad/alone/fearful, not everyone in their audience. And this is why it doesn’t matter if they themselves choose to wear a mask or not: it doesn’t help them if they’re okay to socialize but others aren’t. What matters is other people’s perceptions of social interaction. At first, I thought the reason they wanted others to start unmasking first was because of a fear of getting caught: “they can stop one of us, even a few, but not all.” Certainly, it’s a little bit of that. They’re a rule-follower and someone who’s afraid to be looked upon as wrong.

But at the end of the day, there are plenty of individual people who study in SCCT Atrium and Fojo or other spaces where eating is allowed so they can get away with not wearing a mask. The thing that the author is calling for—a reduction in mask wearing—is what people are already doing within their social groups. So…why don’t they do the same? It seems like they’ve been a little bit ostracized. This letter seems to be much more about changing social norms than it is about declaring definitive pandemic policy, since masks are symbolic of people’s willingness (or unwillingness) to affiliate with people outside their circle.

Unfortunately, the only way out is through. The best path forward is not self-sabotage. It’s not exposing yourself to COVID, with all its new neurological effects. It’s not begging people to unmask publicly, against the will of the Administration. Whether or not it’s still appropriate to test every week and to isolate people who test positive is a different question: one that does have two sides to it, if you’re willing to argue intelligently. But right now, in the framework we’re in, testing positive means being locked in a hotel room for what could be over a week. That’s a long time to miss at this place. If more people unmask, that raises the probability of subjecting more students to time lost here. And making other people feel sad/alone/fearful in a room by themselves doesn’t at all help with your pain, The Devil You Know. Besides, saying, People need to unmask! is not nearly as effective in fostering social connections as finding the words to say, I’m feeling lonely because people tend to spend more time in their own circles these days, even if that latter thing is way harder to voice out loud. But you are not the only one feeling that way—I’m certain of it. And the more you’re able to say out loud, the more you will find that people sympathize with you.

You say that Hamilton students are “ridiculous” in their logic. Well, help them, instead of initiating a “call to arms” to rebel. Organize safe, small-circle events, especially as the weather gets warmer outside. Encourage people to take the most social risks on Tuesdays and Fridays, once we have our test results back from Monday and Thursday. The less time has elapsed since the last negative COVID test, the less of a chance that someone has developed it in the interim. If you must go out over the weekend, Friday is a better day than Thursday or Saturday for this reason. The sooner we can curb this outbreak, the sooner things can go back to normal. If you do have recommendations about specific policy, there are three students (very kind and capable ones, I might add) on the COVID-19 task force. It’s easy to criticize the “administration” generally, but our peers are also working hard to advocate for what is best for this campus, and they certainly want to hear our voices. There are much more productive ways to generate action and autonomy on this campus than through impulsive, anonymous letters.

In light of the email that Dean of Students Terry Martinez sent out to the student body yesterday, I also want to address the kind of discourse that has surrounded this letter, as well as other controversial articles as of late. Hate speech is not a “value” or a “political view,” and it is not our responsibility to accommodate that. But there is a difference between people who intentionally and systematically target others and those who are unaware of the issues or simply misguided. This letter does give off some red flags—in particular, the resemblance of “The COVID Question” title to “The Jewish Question” as associated with Nazis and Mein Kampf—that make me very hesitant to defend this person. But based on the content of this document alone, it seems that it was ostracization that led to these words and not organized malicious intent. Yes, it is our job to include people in this community, within reason and with very understandable limitations. It is the job of satire to give a reasonable critique of those who are intentionally or unintentionally causing harm and, in doing so, to generate solidarity through humor with those on the other end. The more intelligently it can do that, the better it is. It is possible for something to be funny for the wrong reasons, and unfortunately, what someone deserves is not always the same as what is helpful to that situation. All in all, if you know who wrote this letter and they are sympathetic within reason, reach out to them. They could probably use a friend after all this.

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