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Duke’s decision to reopen could cost lives

guest letter

A few months after I was born, I developed a cough and a low fever. My parents brought me to a pediatrician, who told them it was just a cold and not to worry. Unbeknownst to that doctor, I had contracted respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is a common virus that infects many newborns without much issue, but in about half a percent of cases, it leads to life-threatening pneumonia and bronchitis. Less than a day after that doctor visit, my face was pale, my breathing was shallow and my fever was well over 101 degrees. By the time my mother arrived at the emergency department, my breathing was a faint, whining wheeze. As she carried me inside, my respiration was so severely inhibited that my chest was collapsing—rather than inflating—every time I drew a breath. I was in such dire condition that, immediately after she ran through the doors, a nurse ripped me from my mother’s arms and started emergency CPR.

A few months ago, I asked my mom to tell me about that time. Twenty-seven years later, and the memory still brought tears to her eyes.

I was lucky back then. I survived. But respiratory illnesses cause serious, long-lasting damage. My own lungs are permanently weakened. I can feel it every time I breathe. More troubling are the many studies that show how experiencing an episode of acute respiratory distress is linked to lifelong mental health struggles.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past four months, for obvious reasons. Whether by downplaying the severity of COVID-19 by comparing it to the seasonal flu or by claiming that we can easily reopen our communities without a vaccine or even easy and affordable access to testing, it’s clear that many people around the country are not taking this outbreak seriously. 

President Price’s recent decision to reduce the population density of those living on campus is another example of this. The announcement is a poorly-timed half-measure, a cynical and hollow attempt to make it look like the administration cares about health and safety. Instead, the late announcement has sent students scrambling to find suitable housing, and the policies will still leave faculty, staff, and campus workers at risk of contracting a deadly virus.

Our leaders—from those in the federal government all the way down to those in charge of Duke University—are failing spectacularly. They have decided to put profits ahead of people.

Still, campus is set to reopen in a few weeks, Duke workers are worried about their health and safety. Duke faculty are warning that opening campus will put lives—especially Black lives—at risk. Duke students are wondering whether they’ll really be safe on campus. Duke administrators claim to value our community, but they are refusing to listen to the concerns of those who make that community so valuable. With cases of COVID-19 skyrocketing, President Price and others insist that everything will be fine, with grad school admin going so far as to misleadingly present survey data to quell concerns about health and safety. They’ve made it clear that, to them, all of us are disposable.

We all know someone with asthma or high blood pressure or one of the dozens of underlying medical conditions that make COVID-19 an even deadlier disease. Reopening campus puts all of those people—our friends and our family, workers with children at home or faculty with older relatives to care for—at even greater risk. That risk could easily be avoided by canceling college athletics, making courses online-only until it is safe to return to campus, and providing adequate pay for campus workers affected by the closure.

I wonder about the people in charge who are acting with such nonchalance about our health and safety. I wonder whether their mother calls them to ask them how they’re breathing today. I wonder if they’ve ever had a coughing fit and then tasted blood on the back of their tongue. I wonder how often their nightmares involve asphyxiation. Because, even if you survive, some illnesses—and their trauma and their scars—never leave you be.

Reopening Duke’s campus puts us all at risk. It puts Duke’s workers and staff, its faculty, its students, and the entire Durham community at risk: at risk of suffering if not dying from a terrible disease. Our leaders are failing to protect and care for our community. Duke’s decision to reopen could cost lives.

Chris Huebner is a Fourth Year Ph.D. candidate working in the English Department.

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