Are students being problematic in the pandemic?

By Ella Metcalfe |

The last few months have seen a phenomenal increase in new cases of COVID-19. Recent daily cases are more than ten times what they were on June 1st, far exceeding what might be explained and excused by the increase in testing. 

Despite this, students across Penryn and Falmouth often report that they do not match their understanding of the coronavirus threat, however accurate, to their behaviour. Student social gatherings are often not approached with the caution that they should be. Every person interviewed for this article could report instances where it was possible to act in a more socially responsible way. In a time when government guidelines are commonly criticised as vague and incoherent, our own judgement can be a very useful tool in determining what is sensible and what isn’t. Why then, are we so frequently ignoring it?

The University of Exeter and Falmouth University have been working together extremely effectively to create a safe environment on Penryn Campus. Following the trend of areas off the mainland, like the Orkney islands and Na h-Eileanan Siar, Cornwall has had a low number of Coronavirus cases. Of over two hundred upper tier local authorities, Cornwall has the sixth lowest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. At university, students are less likely to come into contact with elderly and high-risk relatives. These factors can lead to a deceptive impression of security that makes us more comfortable in ignoring government guidelines. 

“Student social gatherings are often not approached with caution” | Jacob Bentzinger/Unsplash

Students based both on and off campus feel frustrated that their efforts to keep themselves and others safe can be made entirely ineffective by the actions of their housemates. Living at university is an almost unique situation, in which none of the people under the same roof are from the same family. As such, which guidelines are followed and to what extent they are followed can vary significantly in a single household. Because households do not have to follow the guidelines internally, the success of each person’s preventative measures becomes subject to that of their housemates.

Another trend that can have a huge impact is how a person’s behaviour is massively influenced by their friends in social gatherings. With that in mind, when considering why it is difficult to pay attention to their own judgment, one student said, “I can quite often find myself drifting from guidelines if others are doing it, because I will unconsciously mimic their behaviour”. After describing a party that they had attended where social distancing was ignored, another simply explained “I didn’t have a good reason for it; I was just hanging out with my friends”. Social gatherings are feedback loops where it is so easy to unconsciously follow the rules of play without anyone ever taking a moment to define what those rules are. Students are hesitant to step outside the feedback loop and suggest following social distancing because it feels clumsy, potentially coming across as odd, especially for first-year students who don’t want to appear too rigid to people they are meeting for the first time. As one person described it, students go along with the reckless status quo because we are afraid of seeming “anal”.

“We must change our approach”

The most unusual thing about this behaviour in social gatherings, though, is that it isn’t a continuation of what we are used to. We haven’t just fallen back into old habits. We experienced months of lockdown, and even as more shops and jobs and pubs started to reopen, we commonly acted more responsibly when we were at home than we might do now around our friends. Commonly, interviewees suggested that they behaved in a more reckless way around friends than they otherwise would, though not necessarily to the extent that it made them uncomfortable. Tackling and changing the way that we follow the guidelines clearly isn’t an insurmountable problem. It is merely that the unspoken, unconscious way that social interaction works prevents us from talking about it in the first place. A conversation between friends may be invaluable in changing our collective attitude to following the guidelines in social situations.

We must change our approach. Statistics indicate a worrying trend amongst universities, revealing that they foster the most new cases of coronavirus than almost any other type of institution. On October 10th, the Exeter city centre’s MSOA (regions of roughly 7,200 people) had seen 98 positive COVID-19 tests. The MSOA containing Exeter University recorded 322 positive COVID-19 tests. In Loughborough, the average number of positive tests in an MSOA was eleven, and the University area saw 45. Coventry’s central area had 29 cases; its university area had 94. These are figures that call for change, and our universities cannot do it for us; they do not have the authority over our gatherings as they do our seminars and lectures. It is our responsibility to follow the guidelines, listen to our judgment, and keep each other safe.

This article is in our Opinions section. As such the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.