A response to Responsibility Agreement scepticism

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Image description: St’ Giles street.

Recent articles in The Oxford Student, particularly ‘Morality Patrols’, as well as a petition currently circulating online, assert the University’s overreach in dealing with the Covid pandemic. They argue that by setting university guidelines that go beyond the current laws, and by retaining the right to change these guidelines in the future, the University is infringing on their civil liberties. This debate society sophistry will likely rope in those who also feel that they shouldn’t have to restrict their actions at all. As the saying  goes, ‘your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.’ Where public health is concerned, one person’s rights to live their life as they see fit cannot trump others’ rights to live theirs.

We can all agree that the University could have done a better job of listening to and involving students in their re-opening policy. I have advocated for stricter rules, and a Covid code of conduct with actual consequences. The difference in rules between colleges, while not as dramatic as is alleged, do make following them more challenging. In this way they echo the government’s inconsistent, difficult to parse, and often illogical guidelines and laws.

However, the bulk of these arguments are given over to why it is unreasonable that students should have to sign and follow the Responsibility Agreement, which essentially asks students to be considerate and think of others, to follow the government laws and guidance, and to ensure that if they think they have contracted Covid, that they get tested. None of this should be controversial. The committee that drafted this document, which included representatives from the Students’ Union, wanted to remind students of their responsibilities, educate them on the local rules (since many students are coming from other jurisdictions with different laws), and update the existing code of conduct (which we have all signed) for these unique circumstances. 

In my opinion it is entirely reasonable that before students move into their rented accommodations, they should have to agree to behave appropriately – all rental agreements have behavior conditions which demand the tenant comply with the law and other rules around social behaviour. The most objectionable part of this argument is the rather explicit insinuation that young people should get a pass on the guidelines which are in place to protect all of us. 

As ‘Morality Patrols’ argues, the agreement ‘is an inconvenience placed on the shoulders of young people, many of whom, once away from elderly relatives, will not care an awful lot about contracting the virus’. I understand how frustrating it is for students to be all together in one place and unable to gather or interact socially outside of their small bubbles. I have total compassion for how hard this can be, especially for active, social young adults. We are all having a difficult time with social isolation, loneliness, homesickness, and the anxiety of navigating this strange and stressful situation. But to say, first of all, that young people aren’t at risk of serious illness, or even death, is to ignore the increasing data showing that long-term Covid side-effects affect people across the age spectrum. And as case numbers and hospitalizations rise, the NHS could become overtaxed, putting young adults as well as  everyone else at risk.

As the government, scientists, and the media have pointed out recently, the current rapid rise in cases is being largely driven by people aged 20-29. Oxford’s students don’t inhabit their own bubble. They live in the midst of a dense city, interacting with professors, administrators, and college staff and support workers (many of whom are BAME and therefore statistically more vulnerable), as well as the people who pour their pints and flat whites, interact with them in shops and other businesses, and travel on the same transport. I live in a section of the city where residents comprise equally of families, retirees, and student HMOs. Many of my shielding and more vulnerable neighbours feel trapped in their homes: they are unable to pop to the grocery store since they feel that many students inside are not wearing masks (despite the legal requirement to do so), and do not make room for social distancing. Is this reasonable?

There have been massive social, academic, economic, and mental health costs to young students. But I would argue that essential workers who risked their lives, parents who lost their jobs and thus their ability to support their families, parents homeschooling their kids, those kids who missed out on months of education and activities, all of those that haven’t been able to visit their families or friends for six months, and of course the 52,000+ people who have lost their lives to the coronavirus, have generally sacrificed more.

We are all making sacrifices. And the most important and simplest is taking the steps necessary to avoid spreading Covid-19. Washing hands, wearing masks, staying a safe distance apart, and avoiding gatherings, especially indoors, is the least we can do to protect others. Many of these behaviour changes are also now required by law. This isn’t about protecting ourselves, this is about protecting others. We may have left our grans behind at home, but it is not too much to ask for us to shoulder the ‘inconvenience’ of protecting other peoples’ grans. The most basic level of consideration and legal obedience is requested, if not actual altruism. Those that get upset when social distancing rules are flouted are not the ‘morality patrol’: they are our neighbours who are concerned for their lives, and who want to avoid a reckless spread of the virus so that we can prevent another debilitating lockdown. 

We should remember that attending Oxford is a privilege, not an entitlement. While you can refuse to sign the Agreement, that might preclude continuing your degree, at least this year. The University is completely within its rights to ask us to sign a (non-binding) agreement, especially when what is at stake is the health of all in our community, the rebound of the economy, and its own ability to educate its students effectively. The message The Oxford Student and the petition’s signatories are putting forth counters the goals of Public Health England, which is trying to prevent the scale of death and societal disruption we saw in the spring.

Image credit: Tetiana Shyshkina via UnSplash.

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