Interaction or infection: Fragile balance of co-living amid COVID-19

Photo of friends studying in a living room
Eliana Marcu/Staff

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Even as a slightly introverted person, the loneliness of taking online courses from a different time zone while quarantining was far from bearable. Nevertheless, one day, while scrolling through Facebook posts and craving human connection, I was presented with a unique opportunity: co-living in a “dorm” amid the pandemic.

Bored of my mundane routine I’d fallen into during isolation, living in a dorm with friends in one of the most exciting cities in the world, Tokyo, sounded utopic. However, there are always two sides to such a catchy pitch — and this time, COVID-19 was the darker side.

Though all this may come off as unimaginable for Berkeley residents, due to the Japanese government’s “requestive” measures, which encourage people to stay home rather than restrictive measures including lockdowns, projects such as this one were still able to go ahead. And even with some concerns about the virus, some people were still willing to get on board. Despite the so-called “third wave” — when cases started to surge to 2000 cases per day nationally — this co-living “dorm” project had been launched.

Just a few minutes away from the station, in a quiet neighborhood, there sits Shimokita College, a five-floor, schoollike building with a bright yellow door. In addition to brand-new facilities and proximity to exciting cities such as Shibuya, one of the selling points that the building offers is a space for “interaction” — or an escape from unbearable loneliness in individual homes.


Photo of shared living during COVID


But the educational start-up HLAB, Inc., which manages the building along with UDS Ltd. and Odakyu Electric Railway Co., Ltd., did not initially start the program eyeing the pandemic. Providing a living space that a diverse set of individuals share, the start-up was originally aiming for new styles of educational opportunities for people ranging from high schoolers to postgraduates. In addition to managing the day-to-day operation, HLAB offers services such as academic courses, mentoring, and activities. This pilot program set off in December with roughly 30 residents — myself included — with plans to welcome more residents this coming April. While its initial hope was to be a living space centered around education, the building soon became an almost cruel experiment for how COVID-19 would affect a dorm.

It was as if a new era — the one almost without traces of COVID-19 — had started when I first moved into the building. Since it had been almost a year since the last time I met people, socializing with others — some of whom I knew, most of whom I didn’t — was nothing but fun. Since many were my age, and some were also taking classes from colleges in different countries including the United States, having some cohort to get through the online semester made my prospect a little brighter. Among all else, while being so far away from the UC Berkeley campus and the friends I have there, having a new community where I felt I belonged helped with my unmotivated mental state.


It was as if a new era — the one almost without traces of COVID-19 — had started when I first moved into the building.


Besides all the positive aspects, though, there seemed to remain some concerns over the pandemic. Social distancing is, of course, on the opposite spectrum of the “interaction” and “sharing” that these co-living dorms strive for, and this dilemma was undeniably present while observing events and even just the facilities in the dorm.

In the kitchen, everything was shared — frying pans, plates, chopsticks, silverware and glasses. Along with this, everyone would use the same sponges to wash their dishes. Guests were allowed into the building as well, as long as they registered online upon their visit. At first, masks were encouraged, but no shields were present in the public space, and there seemed to be no effort toward disinfection happening on a consistent basis.

Even as someone who may lack some sense of fear toward the pandemic compared to other people and even as someone who chose the risk of COVID-19 over loneliness, the situation left some questions in my mind. Being somewhat optimistic about the “worst” situation, which I imagined to be someone in the dorm getting infected with COVID-19, I still was ready to quarantine myself and stop seeing my family or anyone else if that were to happen, and though unverbalized, I expected the same from everyone else.

However, whether my expectations were too high or I was far too optimistic about the risk, that situation came earlier than expected.

Soon after the end-of-the-year party, during which all the residents gathered and mingled, the first case in the dorm was reported. And one by one, my friend group disappeared from around me, quarantining in unoccupied rooms on the higher floor, as they’d been flagged as close contacts of the person who tested positive. Although I’d tested negative, as more members were taken upstairs, I was filled with chills surrounding the thought of being the next to be taken. Those who were taken upstairs were not only weathering the effects of COVID-19 but were also emotionally on the edge. Though not explicitly specified, going out for even a walk was not an option, and only instant ramen or convenience store meals that were served at set times were provided for these residents.


I was filled with chills surrounding the thought of being the next to be taken. Those who were taken upstairs were not only weathering the effects of COVID-19 but were also emotionally on the edge.


All the while, though, other residents were free to move around, and sponges and plates were still shared. Along with this, testing was optional. For the fear of contracting the virus, many started to flee to their homes. Opinions around how to handle the situation were split into two main conflicts — some were unsure whether to get tested or not, while others were worried about whether or not to return home for the new year. Some argued for making testing mandatory for all residents, while others refused the idea, either arguing from the manager’s perspective in terms of budget or fearing the possibility of testing positive and being sent to hotels away from home, which was a possibility if the resident was tested using a government-issued test. Some families urged their children to come home, while some refrained from going back for fear of giving their families the virus. I saw my friends argue over these topics, and I heard rumors of many residents blaming those who tested positive. In all this chaos, I saw no more “interactions” in common spaces or people even coming out of their rooms.

However, after the series of COVID-19 cases in the first few months, things returned, more or less, back to normal. In the end, the positives were only limited to a few of the residents, and by the end of the year, all were cured and there were no new cases reported in the building.

The only differences in the dorm that I’ve observed after the outbreak are plastic shields placed between people while eating at tables and posters that remind people to constantly wash their hands and disinfect. Events and meetings were temporarily transitioned online for those who were remotely participating in the program.

Nevertheless, in a dorm where people live to interact with others, it’s never easy to remove socialization completely. We still live in rooms right next to one another, and we often hang out as friends. It’s difficult because at the end of the day, interacting, though not without risks, is what we moved here for.


Nevertheless, in a dorm where people live to interact with others, it’s never easy to remove socialization completely


In this pandemic era, many group homes and co-living facilities for educational purposes face this conundrum — interaction or infection. Interacting with a diverse group of other people can be a source of informal learning, though the spread of COVID-19 weakens this possibility. By keeping distance between one another at all times as advised, the only option we have to interact would be online, the situation that most of the countries and individuals around the world still share.

As a resident of the group home, despite some remaining concerns over countermeasures against COVID-19, I can’t lie about how valuable the learning experience has been through being around people in person. However, as much as I value the interaction that these co-living facilities offer, they should also strive for the best possible precautions, as well as building a system that handles cases in the dorms better. Not only performing basic disinfecting procedures such as washing hands and sanitizing, they must also make tests more accessible so that if someone were to test positive, the spread could be quickly contained. Establishing a support system, such as individual counseling for those who were infected, is also essential for future cases, as the mental health effects of such instant and complete isolation are simply too detrimental.

In reality, though, no matter how much effort is allocated toward protecting one another in a dorm, co-living always comes with a risk during this time. However, what I hope is that by establishing a solid system for dealing with these emergencies coupled with the distribution of vaccines, the spread of COVID-19 will be slowed, and one day soon, co-living and the incredible social aspect of that experience can return.

Contact Eriko Yamakuma at [email protected]