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Lights, covid, action

Sitting in front of my computer for two or three 75-minute Zoom meetings in a day, completing schoolwork and tasks which can only be done via said computer (and maybe giving myself a break and watching an episode of TV), my screen time is soaring to nauseous heights. This certainly doesn’t make me feel like I’m doing what’s best for my health. Ending the day with raw eyeballs and the inklings of a headache doesn’t make me want to go back  and do the same thing the next day.

After nearly two years of this on and off, I cannot believe that a “life” online is better than the alternative of accepting a daily series of small risks in exchange for immense benefits mentally, physically, intellectually and socially. From the beginning of the pandemic, there has been evidence of mental health disorders rising, and, reflecting on the 2020-2021 school year, online learning yielded worse academic outcomes

Duke has told us time and time again that in-person classes have not led to high levels of Covid transmission—unlike activities such as in-person dining, which appears to again be allowed. We should have regulations to mitigate Covid as much as possible—like not having hundreds of students sleeping together in a hamlet of tents, which notoriously causes mass illnesses starting next week—but not when the costs of virtualizing are greater than the risks of being in person with proper precautions. We must accept that the appearance of good intentions will never make Covid go away.

At this point, certain events with a high risk of Covid transmission are inevitably going to happen—sports games, private parties, eating out or simply living with roommates. And people are making their own decisions about how much risk they wish to take in their social lives. Likewise, many events and businesses are making their own restrictions for those who choose to attend. But when in-person events, such as classes, are digitized, it becomes something of a double punishment for the people who are making the safest Covid-related decisions they can regarding interactions with other people.

I struggle to see how anyone else could have lived during this pandemic and not come to the conclusion that interacting with other people in person is one of the most important things in life, and therefore, we should do everything we can to ensure that it can continue to happen. How can people have had over a year of living behind a screen and think, oh, I’d like to do that some more?

But, entities like Duke, who must abide by the popular liberal viewpoints vis-à-vis pandemic regulations, have decided to privilege the health and maintenance of their images over the physical and mental health of the individuals impacted by their policies. It’s simply performative; the pandemic has become more about people and organizations maintaining their political façade of choice—whether that be of collective care, individual freedom or somewhere in between—than it has anything to do with the actual health of any person.

The pervasivity of Zoom use, like the ugly stump and elaborate root system left by a hastily felled tree, signifies a pernicious subversion of societal values. It shows we collectively care more about appearance than reality. We keep throwing Zoom at the wall and hoping it will stick, and watching as it slides down every time.

Zoom use, like the overall presence of technology in our lives, has increased such that it is near impossible to imagine our lives without it, and thus we have been unable to detect the compounding of negative consequences to our well beings. It’s not natural to have so many layers of mediation between interactions that should be commonplace and simple. And the continuing desire to live behind a screen well into the future seems like another excuse for blurring the lines between work and life, appearance and reality, until there isn’t a distinction, and thus no need to cultivate a personal identity beyond one’s online interactions and activity.

Where do we draw the line? How can we say that a remote job or an online education is the equivalent to the real thing? Clearly, a Zoom college education is not as valuable as a fully in person one, but since we’re the ones, shall we say, fixing the price, it need not matter—since the value of an education now apparently lies only in the slip of paper we get at the end, and not the actual knowledge, relationships and life experience gained through the process.

I’m tired of this pandemic becoming more about who can be the best manifestation of their cultivated political persona and not about how we can compromise with all people—and not just the ones we agree with—to protect the health of ourselves and our loved ones, while not infringing too heavily upon the personal liberties of anyone else, with the hope that others will do the same. When health becomes delegated to politics and social façades become a stand-in for morality, no one wins.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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