The Amplification of COVID-19 and the University’s Shadow of Death

O LIVING always, always dying! O the burials of me past and present, O me while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever; O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not, I am content;) O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look at where I cast them, To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind. (O LIVING ALWAYS, ALWAYS DYING by Walt Whitman)*

We know why students were promised a near normal campus experience. We understand the politics of government and the dance of Vice-Chancellors. The government should have stepped in over the summer of 2020 to underwrite the higher education sector, but they did not. And so the propaganda of university managements began, which, they gambled, if spun out for long enough would prevent the realisation of tuition fee and accommodation refunds.

University managements promoted their campuses as COVID-secure and, by enticing students back, made the university a major amplification hub of COVID-19.  The assurance that the space of the university is COVID-secure was and remains a troubling and dangerous fallacy in contradiction of scientific evidence and recommendation, and critical thought. The COVID-secure campus implies a certainty to remain safe and unthreatened by COVID-19 when there is no certainty, only some measures that might reduce the risk of infection. It infers an ability to make the bodies within a designated space free from viral contamination. However, the higher education sector is unique in its geographical concentration of networks of young people and in its generation of the prime conditions for COVID-19 to spread and (as an RNA virus) to mutate. The outcome we all saw coming was stated in The Lancet in early November 2020: “Universities have been a major hub of community transmission”. As academics and union members, the university amplification of COVID-19 has dragged us from a strike of biophilic love, solidarity and living towards the “valley of the shadow of death” (Fromm, 1968: 48).

In a surreal, illusionary alter-universe, university managements continue to busy themselves with surveys asking students what they want. It is the perverse logic of a marketised higher education sector to ask students what they want amid a global pandemic and public health emergency, rather than focus on what they need and delivering that well. It is a further perversity of this marketisation that university managements have chosen to ignore the possibility of morbidity, i.e. Long COVID, in their risk assessments and health and safety measures, while on their websites and press releases promote the cutting-edge research of their institutions on the reality and nature of Long COVID. The falsehood that set students up for a little less than normal university experience is one that threatens some of these students and their academic staff to long-term heart and multiple organ damage. The tendency of most academic staff to seek to avoid face-to-face teaching and deliver online is an expression of “the most elementary form” of biophilia: “a tendency to preserve life, and to fight death” (Fromm, 1968: 45). It is the basic desire for life, for oneself and others, not morbidity or mortality.

When university managements respond to the actual manifestation of sick students and staff and to the prospect of one of us dying, their rehearsed lines imply an indifference to life: one cannot prove they caught COVID on campus, or if they did catch COVID on campus then it was their fault for not following the health and safety guidance. This is the necrophilic logic of “quantification, abstractification, bureaucratization, and reification” (Fromm, 1968: 59); the “question here is not whether [we] are treated nicely […] (things, too, can be treated nicely); the question is whether people are things or living beings” (ibid: 57). The COVID-insecure and market-driven university has acutely exposed its workers, its students and the public both to an amplification of a perilous new infectious disease and to its own class nature and detachment from life.

Book reference:

Fromm, Erich (1968) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. Harper & Row: London.

* Whitman poem cited in Fromm (1968)