As college ends, a pandemic begins

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Just days into 2020, news cycles were already spinning.

Tensions had escalated between the United States and Iran after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump kicked into full gear. Australian bushfires continued to burn.

A public health crisis brewed in Wuhan, China. 

The novel coronavirus — later named COVID-19 — was spreading through Hubei province. By mid-January, the disease breached other countries, including the United States, where Washington state confirmed the first case on U.S. soil.

When asked of the disease’s progression in late January, Trump showed little concern. “We have it totally under control,” he said. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

Early response

Not everyone shared this indifference.

On Feb. 5, when a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee held its first congressional hearing on the coronavirus outbreak, I went. I had been in Washington, D.C. for the spring semester — my final semester of college.

The hearing brought lawmakers and public health professionals, including epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, and Ron Klain, former White House Ebola response coordinator under former president Obama, together to discuss what the United States’ COVID-19 response should look like in the coming weeks.

At the time, it was not abundantly clear that this particular coronavirus would trigger a global pandemic on the scale we are now confronted with in early April 2020 (one that, according to public health experts, will worsen before it improves).

But what was clear back then, based on panel experts’ hearing testimonies, was that the United States’ public health infrastructure was inadequate and ill-prepared for the day a pandemic would inevitably strike. Many experts in extended public health, academic, scientific and U.S. intelligence communities warned of the same.

But what was clear back then, based on panel experts’ hearing testimonies, was that the United States’ public health infrastructure was inadequate and ill-prepared for the day a pandemic would inevitably strike.

It was evident, too, that the disease would likely spread further. In a world more interconnected by travel and technology than ever before, with a disease of COVID-19’s formidable character (easy transmission, long incubation periods with often asymptomatic carriers, no prior immunity or vaccine), and with dubious initial case statistics coming out of China, how could it not get messy?

A disaster in waiting

The Trump administration’s reluctance to immediately initiate testing of suspected COVID-19 cases in the weeks between late January and early March has since been dubbed the “lost month” for containment strategy. Countries such as South Korea, whose first COVID-19 cases were reported at the same time as the United States’, opted for aggressive, widespread testing to worthy effect.

Other missteps were years in the making. Since entering office, the Trump administration had rhetorically downplayed — and worked to financially and institutionally devalue — global health preparedness. The Trump administration continually proposed cuts to agencies that oversee domestic and global health security, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In its dismissal of Obama-era pandemic guidelines and in its reorganization of pandemic response and accountability structures in the White House, the administration failed to establish clear emergency operating procedures and leadership roles to replace the old ones it dismantled. The President’s relentless denigration of scientists, attacks on nonpartisan career diplomats and retribution against members of the U.S. intelligence community who stand up to him have lasting damage when, especially in crisis, the competency of government relies on the policy knowledge and institutional aptitude of the experts within it.

Now, Americans live with the consequences of the Trump administration’s negligence. We wake up every day to news about ventilator and critical personal protective equipment shortages that put our frontline health care workers and their families and patients at risk. We see U.S. hospital systems inundated as convention centers transform into temporary hospitals and as hospital ships (with their own logistical challenges) dock on both coasts. We hear of communication breakdowns as government agency heads contradict Trump and governors plead for more cohesive federal strategy on everything from the distribution of national stockpile supplies to national “stay at home” guidelines (which five states still lack). The State Department — understaffed and overstretched since former secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s gutting of it — struggles to bring home tens of thousands of citizens stranded abroad.

People are dying from this disease, separated from their loved ones, in one of the richest, most powerful nations in the world.

That is our reality.

A new normal?

Like many, I am struggling to adjust to this “new normal.” Our economy, our social lives, our daily activities and most importantly, our personal and public health will continue to be altered in unprecedented ways over the coming weeks and months ahead.

In times like these, we may look to history for guidance, seeking solace in the knowledge that our predecessors once stood in our shoes. And yet, there are no obvious historical comparisons to the COVID-19 outbreak: The often-cited 1918 influenza pandemic holds only limited similarities. Equally jarring, those who crave predictions for the future (When might we return to our schools, our baseball fields or our downtown movie theaters? How many more weeks will be spent in lockdown? How many more deaths before we’re through?) will be disappointed. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, recently told CNN, “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.”

I, like many others, worry about the health of my family and friends, many of whom are considered at-risk due to age or preexisting respiratory conditions. As a graduating UC Berkeley student, I share the grief that many of my peers are experiencing right as we grapple with the loss of what should have been a precious, joyful time in our lives: the end of senior year and spring commencement. For first-generation college students and students who have experienced financial, physical or emotional struggles throughout college (or any combination of these hurdles), losing the opportunity to celebrate the end of a college journey can be particularly painful.

As a graduating UC Berkeley student, I share the grief that many of my peers are experiencing right as we grapple with the loss of what should have been a precious, joyful time in our lives: the end of senior year and spring commencement.

But, I hope most would agree that UC Berkeley made the right choice to swiftly move classes online and postpone May graduation ceremonies in order to prioritize public health. These early actions and lockdowns in the city of Berkeley and across the Bay Area seem to be working.

What next?

That said, without any benchmarks to facilitate the end of my own college experience, I’m left like others in the class of 2020 to evaluate my journey alone (for now). Beyond acquiring a degree — the obvious achievement of graduates — what matters in the end? Sadly, crisis has a way of crystallizing some of these answers.

From the city of Berkeley and the Bay Area, I’ll be leaving university with a much deeper understanding of how inequality in its various forms — social, economic, racial, environmental — shapes American life.

I will not forget the feeling of walking past homeless camps in Berkeley on my way to class every day, or of working with students crippled by food insecurity and student loans, or of hearing from campus lecturers who can barely afford the cost of living on Southside while teaching three courses and raising a family.

I will not forget the local activists who shared with me how income and class still divide the Bay: how communities still feel the legacies of post-war redlining, or how low-income communities and communities of color breathe polluted air — air that literally corrupts their lungs — in cities that neighbor Berkeley, such as Richmond.

Through COVID-19, I see how these types of inequalities that I noticed in Berkeley are magnified on a massive — at times life or death — scale. They can be the difference between a person securing a COVID-19 test and accessing necessary health care or not. They can be the difference between having the financial means and job flexibility to work at home or facing financial ruin.

Recognizing these inequalities and how they shape the distribution of power, opportunity and resources is the first step toward reducing them. Living and learning in Berkeley has given me this perception. With it, I’m committed to leading a life in public service rooted in the protection of human dignity, justice, and basic needs and security for all.

From my academic life at UC Berkeley, I have developed a deep appreciation for the role that free speech and free access to diverse, democratized information plays in our educational institutions and in our country. With that, I also recognize that these freedoms come with greater responsibility: a responsibility in each of us to more critically assess the information we consume in a landscape complicated by divisive politics and technological advancements.

On this front, the class of 2020 faces a unique circumstance. We are a cohort whose educations, politics and social lives are shaped by the internet and social media platforms where the proliferation of “fake news,” algorithms, deep fakes and other information distortions surge with limited oversight. At the beginning of our college career, disinformation campaigns worked to influence an American presidential election. Four years later, as we exit our senior year, it could happen again.

We are also a class that’s seen fierce debate over the bounds of the First Amendment and the imperative and precious freedoms that it provides. These debates came in the form of protests in 2017 against far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, smaller protests in the years to follow and extended campus forums and events with faculty and students eager to unpack the implications of it all.

While I can only speak for my own experience, I feel confident that I’ll be leaving UC Berkeley with the skills to take on this complex information landscape. I’ve been lucky to learn from professors who always prioritized teaching their students how to critically assess and dissect information — be it research data, news articles, public policies or political speeches — rather than telling students what viewpoints to adopt. From them, I’ve learned the tools of ethical scholarship and research. From that process of academic inquiry, I’ve learned how essential it is that we protect the free flow of information and discourse that makes such inquiry possible.

Finally, I’ll be leaving college with an even greater sense of social responsibility.

Finally, I’ll be leaving college with an even greater sense of social responsibility.

Part of the reason I came to UC Berkeley was for its student body’s commitment to public service. Whether service comes in the form of community work with local East Bay nonprofits or student organizations, or whether service is geared toward the global stage (UC Berkeley continues to produce record numbers of Peace Corps volunteers), this spirit of collaboration, social consciousness and sight beyond self will remain with me. 

In the midst of COVID-19, there is perhaps no more important time to exercise these values and to show care for others: care for people we know and people we have never met, care for people in our own country and for people halfway across the world. As we exercise social responsibility with adherence to distancing guidelines, for example, we learn how our individual actions impact others.

The sooner we accept how inextricably tied our fates are on global challenges such as health security and climate change, the better we can cooperate and mobilize to confront them.

Moving forward

Surely, the weeks and months ahead in this pandemic will be difficult.

For now, we must seek guidance from public health experts and scientists.

I hope that the people most gravely affected can get the support they need, and fast.

I hope that students whose educations have been upended can find some peace in knowing that their learning process is not over.

Because in these times, we learn hard lessons: lessons about the costs of failed leadership and the faults in our government, lessons about the vulnerabilities of our communities and of our basic infrastructure, lessons about the fragility of our own bodies.

Yet we learn of strengths, too: of the heroes and the helpers among us — frontline health care workers, grocery store clerks, truck drivers, sanitation workers and more — who rise with courage and grit amid challenging personal and professional circumstances.

As we watch this crisis unfold, we’ll find space for repair and reform.

And when it’s over, we can work to rebuild.

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.