By Imogen Sawyer
For many, reflecting on the last three years is almost a blur, where days merged into weeks and weeks into months of what felt like endless lockdowns. Fast forward to Michaelmas Term 2022, and the Cambridge dining halls, lecture theatres and jazz clubs have been revived with the constant hum of students. However, hidden in this buzz are a minority of students who are stuck in the land of the in-between where the dangers of Covid-19 and other communicable diseases still loom in their everyday lives, mortality, and ultimately with life itself.
I reached out to two students who are classed as clinically vulnerable and immunosuppressed. This means that their immune systems are weakened and a disease such as the common cold can have severe effects on their health, in some cases resulting in them being hospitalised. These students discussed what it's like to be the flatmate that never seems to leave their room or the friend that always appears to miss whole--class lectures. In these conversations, we delved into how the lack of awareness surrounding immunosuppression induces a sensation of feeling forgotten. John (false name), a final year student reading History, commenced hiss tudies when Covid-19 was at its height and much about the virus was still unknown. Contrary to most of his peers, this ended up being an advantage for John, since many large events were not running, masks were mandatory, and lateral flow tests were part of everyone's weekly routine. It was when restrictions eased and his lectures went back to in-person teaching that Covid-19 posed the biggest threat to his health. Since then, John has contracted Covid-19 twice, was hospitalised both times, and fractured a rib from coughing too much. "The behaviour changes meant that contracting Covid was inevitable, but it's not anyone's fault," says John with a bittersweet smile. He goes on to explain the difficulties in making friends, as his peers found it difficult to truly understand his fear of getting seriously ill. He elaborates, "I haven't met anyone else in my position and so haven't been able to discuss it much with others. [...] We get left behind by it, but I understand the psychological need for others to move on." Entering Lent term, John explains how he has "thrown himself" into as much student life as his health will permit. His courage and dedication to continue to attend lectures is remarkable, considering that he has already been on three courses of antibiotics this academic year. But he admits that he is "less keen to do a master's degree mainly due to the pattern of living here [...] it's very taxing". Emily's (false name) relationship with Covid-19 is an interesting one, as she stands in the unique position of researching the cause of her immunosuppression. Emily is a fourth year PhD student in biology who has had to pause her education three times due to health issues. Although much of her work is based online, she describes the times when she has to go in for lab meetings or in-person lectures which are mentally and physically a huge undertaking. For her, attending these events requires calculating every risk of going into the unknown, such as finding a seat that is socially distanced from others. Emily's immunosuppression affected not only her PhD but also the social aspects of her unievrsity life. "Studying in the college library or simply meeting friends is not an option," Emily reflects. "I feel isolated because there are many in-person events now but when invited I have to say no." A key part of Emily's Cambridge experience has been her involvement in the disabled student's campaign of the Student Union, where she found herself comfortable to "speak openly and freely [...] in a supportive community" of peers who are in a similar situation to hers. "Not every illness is visible," emphasises Emily. She admits initially being frustrated by others for not wearing masks, which could put many vulnerable people at risk. But with many supportive friends and family by her side, she has grown to accept this new reality. It is true that many of us have felt isolated at some point over the last three years. Thankfully, the majority of us now can safely say goodbye to that era of our lives and re-engage with society and continue building relationships with others. However, this is not the reality for John and Emily. Their stories illustrate how sitting next to a coughing classmate might mean being ill for the next month, or how an act as small as attending lectures involves an elaborate mind-game of risk calculation. In a world full of uncertainties, these seemingly endless hurdles will remain for John and Emily. I hope these two unique, personal accounts inspire our community to become more mindful of others whose struggles are not always visible to the casual observer.