Op-ed: If you have the privilege of choice, choose to go home

Tuesday, March 24, 2020 - 1:32pm

Since the University of Michigan’s initial COVID-19 announcement on March 11, students have been feeling overwhelmed, to say the least. The uncertainty that comes from a surreal crisis like the one we are facing induces heightened levels of stress and anxiety for both students and community members. The University administrators’ fumbled, multi-day rollout of their response measures did little to mitigate these fears.

In the midst of universities and governments around the globe enacting unprecedented policies, people want to cling to what is comfortable. Yearning for normalcy during a crisis is natural. Some students are still hanging out with friends and visiting on-campus spots while taking precautions. To many, this type of response seems reasonable.

It is not. 

By only providing additional clarity and toughening their policies March 17, the University helped facilitate this dangerous attitude. The March 11 statement did not take a clear stance on whether or not students should leave campus, only specifying that housing and dining halls would continue to operate. By not conspicuously stating they wanted students to leave if they were able to, the University caused confusion and many people, quite understandably, decided to remain on campus for the time being and go about their lives as normally as possible.

This widespread desire to stay in Ann Arbor for the semester briefly influenced my plans. I could have easily driven myself an hour and a half to my moms’ house in Kalamazoo, but I wanted to stay on campus. I figured being in Ann Arbor would help me focus on my schoolwork and avoid the probable challenges of moving back home. I reasoned that I could stay if I exercised precautions, such as limiting my movement outside of my residence hall and not meeting up with large groups. Many of my friends and hallmates were planning on sticking around, too. 

This sentiment was echoed by what I witnessed on my social media feeds, as students posted photos from bars, joked about spending $20 to fly internationally and shared statments like the following: “I’d rather be dead in Ann Arbor than alive in my hometown.” Soon after the University switched to online classes, I noticed that students were continuing to attend informal events with more than 10 people and neglecting to adhere to proper social distancing measures at such gatherings.

This approach exhibits privilege that is, quite literally, deadly.

It is imperative for those who have the ability to go to an alternative, safe location to do so. Crowded living environments like residence halls and sorority houses would make the virus remarkably easy to spread to others and make it difficult for individuals who have been exposed to properly self-quarantine. Many people who have the coronavirus might not even realize they are carrying it, being that some of those who are infected are asymptomatic. About 81 percent of cases are mild, which is likely higher among younger demographics. A lack of caution among students, coupled with the effortless transmission of the virus, will only spread it wider and faster, further risking vulnerable populations and increasing the number of patients that health care workers will need to aid.

Additionally, not taking the advice to move home is seriously harmful to students who have no other choice but to stay. Some people simply don’t have the funds to travel or a safe place to go. International students are caught in incredibly difficult situations due to travel restrictions, while out-of-state students have to choose between waiting it out or making the trek back home — potentially increasing their risk of exposure by traveling across the country — to be with their families. Others might need the food provided by campus dining halls or need to work jobs in Ann Arbor to make ends meet. Staying on campus means frequenting common spaces like dining halls and grocery stores while continuing to live in tight quarters, making social distancing harder and putting the students who must stay here at an increased risk of exposure.

By risking transmission of the virus in a condensed campus environment like that of Ann Arbor, people with the ability to return to safer homes elsewhere are only adding to the problem. Even though it might not present a severe risk to you personally, staying on campus and spreading the disease could mean life or death for others. Although not explicitly, doing this prioritizes those who are healthy, young and wealthy over those who are immunocompromised, elderly, undocumented, disabled and impoverished. Not taking the threat COVID-19 presents seriously is a demonstration of blatant privilege that will inevitably weaken public health efforts to combat the virus and prolong its adverse effects on society.

This is our chance to come together and do something good. By following preventative measures — like moving off-campus and not socializing with friends in person — we can prevent this pandemic from saturating the capacity of our health care system and causing long-term disruption to society. If you are privileged enough to have a choice, choose to help the vulnerable people who need us to do our part.

Lily Antor is a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at lilyant@umich.edu.