Images of an empty Durham have no doubt found their way onto many of our Facebook feeds recently. Most students left carrying heavy suitcases and heavy hearts, knowing this was how their academic year would end. Some chose to stay, for academic or logistical reasons. But whether you’re at home or still in this little city, there is hardly a moment in time when so many of us share a largely similar lifestyle – that of social distancing. So we decided to reach out to a few students, those who are still in Durham as well as those who’ve gone home. These are their stories.
Durham, along with much of the world, remains under an unprecedented lockdown phase to cope with the COVID-19 virus. Social distancing has forced people to remain indoors and limit physical contacts. Government guidelines are being reviewed periodically, with no guarantees as to when this isolation will end. Sasha, a postgraduate, says that the lockdown feels like punishment: ‘Isolation has stripped away all the good things we had since I came to the university and there is no certainty about when it will end,’ she adds.
For students, this uncertainty raises questions about the future. Asked whether he would return to Durham from his home country, Ireland, Brendan O’Neill, a Geography postgraduate, says that he is very disappointed and does not know if the situation will permit him to return to Durham. ‘I just have to work remotely and see what happens,’ says O’Neill, frustrated by the anticipation of not returning to his friends. But O’Neill is happy to be with his parents, who give him a sense of normalcy and emotional strength during isolation.
Many students, however, have chosen to remain in Durham. Costanza, a postgraduate research student (PGR) from Italy, chose to stay in Durham to continue her research. She has a large family and wide network of friends back home who want her to return to Italy, but she told them that she would be remaining in Durham to focus on her work. ‘I feel guilty about telling them no but I have made a choice,’ says Costanza. She admits it is very hard for her to be away from her parents, a twin sister, and friends. Nevertheless, she says she is ‘resolute because this is the best choice.’
Choosing to stay in Durham isn’t an easy decision, especially when many have rushed home. ‘I feel heartbroken because I know what my country has experienced [in January], and the same tragedy is repeating, worldwide,’ Jossie, an undergraduate in Education and Psychology from China, says. It takes courage and discipline to come to terms with her decision to stay, away from her family. What keeps Jossie anchored are thoughts of the frontline workers who are battling it out to save our lives.
Dealing with this untested isolation requires not only determination and discipline but also creativity. For Costanza going to her desk every morning has not stopped. She pretends she is going to work every day so gets up every morning and dresses up. ‘The distance I travel has shortened though,’ she jokes. ‘Because my work is upstairs in my flat, where I set up a room as my office.’
The actions of the UK government to tackle COVID-19 spark political debates among the students. Sun argues that the UK government is doing the right things now but it has taken longer to implement appropriate measures, like social distancing. ‘Herd immunity did not work here but I am glad that the government is now taking proper actions,’ says Yun. Sasha, the postgraduate student, is less diplomatic and more pragmatic: ‘The tensions of reality and the effectiveness of the measures that are in place do not give us any certainty as to when we return to our lives again,’ she cautions.
Amidst all this, international students still in Durham face difficult circumstances. For some, choosing to go home meant risking not returning to UK. Jossie decided to stay because of the academic resources she needs for her remaining assessments, but for many international students, leaving also meant losing out on the limited time they have in the UK, so they remained here, accepting social distancing.
While some stay focused on their academic work, others seek normalcy in the oddest of the circumstances. Matteo Lai, a History postgraduate from Italy, has been spending this period appreciating the green sceneries of Durham, and though fraught by this pandemic and without the usual student population, the spring spirit in this idyllic city shines through. ‘I miss being able to go to the many cafés of Durham – being here is as much about things like that as it is about the lectures and university,’ he admits, adding that he hopes he will soon be able to have a cup of tea with his friends instead of having virtual catch up over Zoom.
For now, social distancing remains an unpleasant and a challenging reality. Yet, students are trying and finding ways to go about their daily chores – getting up in the morning, having breakfast and lunch, distantly staying in touch with friends, going out to get fresh air, even taking a walk to explore the city. The everyday lives the students have had before the crisis now have a new meaning. ‘We take these things for granted,’ says Nasho Ibarra, a PGR in Geography from Chile. ‘We hardly appreciate the life we have but now I know how important and precious it is.’
Image: Emphyrio via Pixabay