Continued Community in the Era of Social Distancing

Rainbows among the storm clouds
APR 2020
Olivia
Y.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

Coronavirus has drastically changed our daily lives as MIT students. In the span of a week, we have gone from attending regularly scheduled classes and happily discussing spring break plans to an almost vacant campus.

My heart goes out in sadness to the senior undergraduate students who never got the joys of senior spring that they were promised. My heart goes out to all the student athletes who trained for months in the hopes of showcasing their hard work during the spring sports season. My heart goes out to all the students who had to say goodbye to their friends much sooner than expected, with heavier hearts in the face of all of this uncertainty. My heart goes out to those whose home situations are less than desirable, who are now faced with the possibility of months without escape.

I would classify these weeks as the most uncertain times of my twenty three years of life. The only current event that stands in comparison to COVID-19 is September 11, 2001, and my memories of that day are cloudy and mostly incomprehensible. I was too young to truly understand the significance of that day. In contrast, I am almost too aware of the significance of the Coronavirus.

My classmates and I, first years in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, have been extremely interested in this public health crisis, a real-life application of many of the textbook topics that we learned about in class. Consequently, it was all we talked about during the final week of in-person lectures back in March, and mentions of COVID-19 have peppered all my lectures since then. My professors, many of whom are medical doctors in Boston hospitals, gave their opinions about the course of the virus in class. They updated us on the state of the hospitals, which were preparing for an onslaught of patients. We bombarded them with questions about their predictions and what we should be doing. In my free time, I tuned into the constant news cycle and obsessively refreshed my email for updates on MIT’s official policies.

Despite all the sadness, fear, and anxiety, I want to believe that some good will come out of all of this. And I am starting to see the initial signs of good, like a rainbow peeking out from behind the dark storm clouds.

The first rainbow peaks behind the storm clouds

First, I have been impressed by the signs of community in the face of distress. The Boston community has risen to help those in need. MIT has taken a leadership role in the face of distress, orchestrated an emergency response in the span of a few days, assisted with move-out, terminated students’ leases, guaranteed continued pay and provided travel vouchers to get students home. The gaps in MIT’s plan have been filled by the community: churches, nonprofits and other organizations have offered financial assistance to students who cannot afford to move home. Professors and community members have offered up their homes as temporary housing. And despite social distancing, Zoom calls and constant group chats have encouraged a sense of comradery and community.

A second rainbow breaks through the storm

This crisis has been a wake-up call about the importance of global citizenship. Our society increasingly tends toward selfish behaviors, disregarding the impacts of our actions on others and on the environment as a whole. This past Sunday, our neighboring Costco had a police officer guarding the toilet paper to prevent any member from taking more than one pallet – a blatant reminder that our society still tends toward self-centered behavior, especially in times of strife. Nonetheless, coronavirus has forced us to come together and follow certain behaviors for the good of society. Social distancing will not work unless we all commit to stay home. This pandemic has forced me to consider the community effects of my behaviors. Even though I am not too worried about my own health, as a twenty something with no pre-existing health conditions, I know that it is my public responsibility to limit contact with others, continuously clean my hands and stay home as much as possible.

A final, overarching rainbow

Most of all, this social distancing has forced me to reevaluate my life priorities. My schedule went from jam-packed to completely empty in the course of a few days. My weekly social obligations, academic classes, extracurricular activities, and weekend plans have all been postponed. I cannot even go to the gym, something that has been a staple in my daily routine for years. In some ways, this is a breath of fresh air. It has forced me to ask myself “What do I really want in life?” and make sure that my daily actions reflect my priorities. Coronavirus has forced me to face my own mortality and the mortality of all those I care about. For the coming months, academic achievement and traditional markers of success have been pushed to the side. My daily priority is now to make sure that the people I love know that I love them. 

A year from now, this pandemic will have had a lasting impact on our lives – that is undeniable. My hope is that even after the fear has subsided and life has returned to normal, these rainbows, breaking through the storm clouds of the pandemic, will remain with me.