COVID-19 Crashes Into Harvard, Chaos Ensues - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Boxes of students belongings outside of Eliot House at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
SourceBlake Nissen/Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because the coronavirus has just been added to the list of existential college concerns.

By Joy Nesbitt

On Tuesday, March 10, I was supposed to wake up at 8:45 a.m. for my 10 a.m. class. I was apprehensive about waking up so early after a weekend of nonstop rehearsals and meetings for every single extracurricular I have, culminating in a 3 a.m. bedtime the night before.

When my alarm rang and I went to turn my phone off though, I saw that I had 33 unread text messages. At the top of my notifications, I saw an email from Lawrence S. Bacow, the president of Harvard University, with the subject line: “COVID-19 — Moving Classes Online, Other Updates.”

Disillusioned by the vague COVID-19 updates I had been receiving, I opened the email expecting to hear that the jig was up, spring break would be indefinitely extended and we’d take classes online for a couple of weeks. And I was right.

I and many of my classmates are still in shock and in the process of fleeing our Cambridge campus. And we’re not alone …

But then I received another email from Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, with the subject line: “An Important Message from Harvard College.”

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I didn’t read the whole email. I really only read the bolded phrasing: “Harvard College students will be required to move out of their houses and first-year dorms as soon as possible and no later than Sunday, March 15, at 5:00 p.m.”

I read that phrase multiple times, and it didn’t really register for me until I found myself on a group FaceTime call with my parents. By the end of our call, we had devised a plan for me to fly from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Dallas that Saturday. Numb, I prepared for an unexpected exit from Harvard College with little information besides the news of my eviction in the face of a pandemic — all of which was supposed to happen in the span of five days.

This news forced Harvard students into a new brand of panic: College Armageddon. As I walked through Harvard Square that day, I realized that I had never seen so many people outside before. I received six messages in multiple different group message apps saying “Senior Week starts now.”

This eerily sunny day had, unexpectedly, turned into a day of partying and hysterical denial about the global issue at hand, as raucous day parties opened at every Final Club’s private on-campus housing.

That night, the mayhem continued.

The local liquor store, C’est Bon, sold out of Corona beer within hours of Dean Khurana’s email. People traveled around campus in packs, shouting and roaming the streets looking for more parties as students willfully ignored social distancing because if the world was ending? Why not? The entire campus had entered into school-wide senior week mayhem where all bets were suddenly null and void.

But my classmates who receive financial aid or had come from unsafe homes were inconsolable. I’ve never seen so many people on the phone weeping and sending emails requesting financial assistance.

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To all of us, it seemed that Harvard had forgotten that many students need their campus. It felt like the institutional constancy of Harvard, an institution where many students build their futures, had suddenly disappeared.  

But amidst all of this confusion, graduate students stepped up to support their undergraduate community members. Students crowdfunded housing and storage subsidies for qualifying undergraduates, and students expressed their concerns to administrators, who shared more resources for undergraduates who needed it.

At this point, I and many of my classmates are still in shock and in the process of fleeing our Cambridge campus. And we’re not alone as most college campuses in the U.S. are following suit in asking students to leave their campuses.

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Nihilism about this outbreak, however, feels like a luxury as there are plenty of people who cannot afford the philosophical distancing from the virus. To me, the behavior of undergraduate and graduate students on my campus is representative of the attitudes and actions we should be taking globally.

So if I had one thing to offer, while pandemonium ensues, it’s that it’s important that we as global community members not only take care of ourselves as we weather this storm, but that we also support those who are more affected, physically, emotionally and financially. That might be the best way to a good start of the end of a bad situation.

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