by Dr. Alberto Giubilini
Like many other pandemic measures, the extended closures of university campuses has been a massive social and public health experiment.
The results in the report published this week in Collateral Global this week on the impact of pandemic restrictions on university students’ mental health – sadly – should not be too surprising. Young people were not a priority during the pandemic. It is quite telling that most countries – and most people – did not change strategies and attitudes after the initial uncertainty, as we gained more evidence about how minuscule young people’s risk is from Covid. We continued imposing population-wide restrictions, including the closures of schools and university campuses, and moving to online-only teaching, even when it became clear that these restrictions would not benefit young people. They did not need protection from Covid as much as they needed protection from the effects of policy responses on their mental health and their psycho-physical development more generally. This report emphasises once more how we failed to protect young people’s well-being from the inevitable harms of prolonged restrictions.
Public health policies are justified to the extent that they produce significant enough collective benefits without disproportionately burdening certain groups. Admittedly, in situations of uncertainty, a rigorous cost-benefit analysis is not always possible. And yet, the stricter the restrictions, the stronger the duty to rigorously gather real-time evidence on what costs they impose on different groups. Like many other pandemic measures, the extended closures of university campuses have been a massive social and public health experiment. But even experiments require constant interrogation as to whether they are working, and a measure of their success must be the continuous evaluation of whether they are creating collateral damage. It seems we didn’t want to see or give due consideration to such damage.
The prolonged closure of university campuses and the decision to move online all the teaching, socializing, and formal and informal interactions that play a central role in young people’s psycho-physical development resulted in enormous costs that we could not see on our computer screens. With the report this week, the evidence of the significant damage we caused to them becomes more apparent – for example, with the studies showing one in three students reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Those of us working in academic institutions (or better, working on that non-existent space that is Zoom) could not see what was happening beyond those discrete windows through which we were delivering classes or supervising students from our homes. When the world exists only to the extent that it appears on a computer screen, it is easy to forget that students’ existence and experiences do not end the moment they disappear from view. When Zoom meetings and classes are over and the computer shuts down, the young people remain out of sight. Many were sitting alone in their rooms, deprived of their lives as students and, indeed, as whole persons, at a developmental stage when experiences and social interactions play a critical role in helping them understand themselves and the world around them. Although we could not see that, it should not have been difficult to imagine the damage already when the cameras turned off.
There may be limited utility at this point in blaming those responsible for the public health decisions that completely disregarded this potential (and foreseeable) damage to students. It also might be pointless to assign culpability to the academics who kept (and continue to keep) supporting tight restrictions and advocating for online teaching from the comfort of their homes while relegating students to social isolation. But what is undoubtedly useful, in light of this week’s report, is to look ahead as winter in the Northern Hemisphere approaches and more people begin putting restrictions back on the table.
Before making any decisions, we must acknowledge that we don’t need to run social and public health experiments on students any more. We have data now about the harm we have caused to them. And we now know the threat that closing campuses and moving the whole student experience online can pose.
Any decision to close university campuses at this point can no longer be construed as an innocent mistake – if, indeed, it ever was.
Dr. Alberto Giubilini is a Senior Research Fellow in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford.
This article originally appeared in Collateral Global, a U.K.-based charity researching the collateral impacts of the mandated non-pharmaceutical interventions.