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Unforeseen new symptom of coronavirus: Questions

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Will graduating seniors have a commencement this year? What will Duke employees do without their income? What happens to PhD candidates defending their theses? How does the low-income student plan for a financially cumbersome future in lieu of travel costs and lost work-study wages? 

Coronavirus, medically, is latent with questions. The symptoms are fuzzy; it’s flu-like, yet instances of the infection can have their own variation. Medical professionals do not have all the answers. They cannot account for all the possible symptoms nor can they account for all the possible questions. The medical ones, like how to stay healthy, are commonsensical: wash your hands, practice social distancing, show rational caution. The non-medical ones have proven to be a lot harder to answer. 

As a Duke population, we are used to questions. Duke is a research university—it thrives on the good, challenging questions. But we only like questions we can answer, those within our control. Even the uncertainty of a summer internship  is assuaged by the back-of-mind comfort that Duke’s got you. Attending, teaching at or being adjacent to this institution provides a layer of protection from the precarity of the “real” world. We can comfortably feel sorry for those suffering with coronavirus, but we only feel sorry because we do not think it could ever be us. The instant it became a possible reality, we ignored it. 

With classes moving online and the subtle yet firm request to pack our things and leave, students, faculty, employees and the general Duke body have become symptomatic recipients of the unknown non-medical questions of coronavirus. Our lives, once set and planned with expectations—plans made with commitments, time and energy spent—are abruptly uprooted from the once secure foothold we expected through Duke.

But was everything always secure? While I had personally been loosely following COV-19 to learn more about its medical symptoms, mostly to check in on my aging parents, I was still safely doing so from the assumed security of my Duke student status. I still woke up each day with the full expectation that my days would not significantly change. 

However, there are infrastructural and administrative forces that shape everything we plan for ourselves at Duke. Students, at least undergraduates, are known for the wall-to-wall Google Calendar; for the work hard, party hard mentality. But the irony of it all is that none of our hard work is ours, none of the planning is really up to us. Duke provides us with a fail-safe cushion to land on at any point, even if we can’t see it. 

Now, I am filled with unanswerable questions, including questions I will not know to ask until things get worse, or better, or both. I described the feeling to my friends as unsettled—not upset that all my plans were being cancelled, nor elation that... all my plans were being cancelled! Instead, the intrusion of coronavirus pricks me with discomfort because it shows me the illusion of my previous comfort. I can not help but cringe at the mentality I held toward my own security, and how much I assumed and carried with me, as a Duke student, about Duke.

I still cannot tell you if COVID-19 is as important as we are making it out to be. I cannot say if it’s even more than what we are making it out to be. (It probably is.) And I genuinely feel for the students who have exhausted love, time and energy into projects such as the Black Student Alliance Invitational, April dance showcases, MFA student exhibits and many more events that have been and will be cancelled. 

I understand that none of this is part of the plan. But the comfort the university provides can be detrimental to masking underlying issues with a thick layer of security. We are being shown our human skin as the university shifts the layer of protection from us to the globe, demonstrating its responsibility in not permitting a wider spread of coronavirus. In that, our plans, which we imagine constitute our lives, are being uprooted. But the reality is, they were never rooted at all. We sat on a bed of questions and coronavirus has forcefully unearthed them.

This time, we have to settle on not knowing the answer. What we can do is take the security we were offered at Duke and offer it back to others who are burdened by the additional questions caused by coronavirus. But know, no matter how much we forecast into our future and plan ahead, we only have what we do today and the caution and patience, not fear and panic, we carry into tomorrow.

Inspired by the Bible verse James 4:13–17 and the idiom: We plan, God laughs. 

Omolola Sanusi is a Trinity junior and a contributing writer for Recess.

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