As Oxford term kicks in, there is no denying that us students must get back into some kind of routine. For most, the past few weeks have been anything but normal. According to the World Economic Forum 2.6 billion people worldwide were living under lockdown in early April. Where measures have been strictly implemented, the spread of the virus is beginning to slow.
And we’ve seen all the numbers: the deaths, the jobs lost, the massive economic stimulus packages. We might wonder, isn’t it about time we got used to this? Isn’t it about time we got on with our, albeit digital, lives? Business as usual, but locked down, isn’t as simple as it seems; the mental health impacts of the pandemic and the inequalities that it has revealed will force us to rethink normality.
The University has made some changes; most first year exams have been cancelled and, wherever possible, other assessment methods are being implemented. Students have been asked for their views in search of an equitable solution. Still, some colleges fail to acknowledge that a remote term cannot mean normality but online.
While many tutors attempt to accommodate for this strange situation – by cancelling or postponing collections, increasing communication with students and adapting the workload – others have made hardly any changes. Students are expected to deliver, throughout term and during “informal” Prelims, which will be taking place for some subject groups and colleges.
Complaints about a lack of motivation and productivity under lockdown, of course, come from a place of privilege. Some students are working long shifts in their essential jobs and coming home to study at night. Outside the Oxford cosmos, parents are getting up in the middle of the night to get work done so that they can take care of their children during the day.
Whatever the circumstances, however, the expectation that life under lockdown can be the same ignores the reality of the chaos that we are in.
According to Professor Ed Bullmore, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, the changes associated with the current pandemic are “generally major psychological risk factors for anxiety, depression and self-harm”. The lasting uncertainty, being stuck at home, and the existential fears associated with the pandemic, are unsettling.
Paired with the lack of access to therapy, they are sure to take a toll on mental health. The World Economic Forum predicts “a secondary epidemic” in the months after the pandemic: “Just when we need all able bodies to repair the economy, we can expect a sharp spike in absenteeism and burnout”, a recent report states.
As always, social media plays an ambiguous role. Instagram is teeming with therapy-type posts. These snippets of advice strewn into busy news feeds talk of collective trauma and urge us to take it easy. They are directly juxtaposed by the flood of home-workouts and quarantine ‘To-Dos’. Social media is keeping us connected with the world beyond our isolation-home.
By sharing our creative endeavours, bread-making experiments and newfound hobbies, however, we are also creating immense pressure. For those who have had the time and energy, the weeks of lock down have been a chance to catch up on projects long overdue; for others, they are a time to rest, or simply get through.
There is no one way to go about life under lockdown. We’re all facing similar rules, so we’re all in this, but certainly not together. The practical and mental circumstances are too different. While some cope by keeping busy, others have no choice but to wait this out.
Some can’t afford to take it slow, working essential jobs or taking care of family while working from home. Self-isolating in a two-bedroom apartment with a family of four is simply not the same as on country estates.
The pandemic has laid bare what normality conceals.
If quarantine was a well-needed rest, is now the time to get on with things? Life has to continue, somehow. There are degrees to finish and internships to apply for and jobs to get. But the crisis isn’t over yet, and more will follow. As many countries are still struggling to keep infection rates down, the economic effects of the virus will hit.
Those of us who can, or have no choice but to, could attempt to brush this off and continue as normal. We now know what crisis feels like, we’ve seen how far it sets us apart. Between calls to rush back to normal and reminders to take things slow, maybe now is the time to rethink.
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