On Sept. 29, Giang T. Nguyen, executive director of Harvard University Health Services, emailed me to request my participation in Harvard’s pilot COVID-19 testing program for off-campus students. “With your participation in this pilot,” he wrote, “you will help us in our ongoing work to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, the health and wellbeing of our Harvard community.”
To that end, the University sought to conscript “approximately 500 undergraduates currently living in Allston, Arlington, Belmont, Brighton, Cambridge, Malden, Medford, Newton, Somerville, or Watertown” into their public health regime, bringing the shadowy exiles under the great eye of the Q-tip.
I warily accepted the offer the day before the deadline, and in under a week, I received a package on my doorstep with eight testing kits — one for every remaining full week of this seemingly interminable semester.
My wariness was a product of resentment. I felt — still feel — somewhat neglected by the University. Not that I’m really into the whole college-as-parent idea, and I recognize that the College is limited, like all institutions, in what it can do now. But for all the talk of Harvard as home, the College — beyond my academic responsibilities — is fairly absent from my life. Some days, I feel like I’ve already graduated and am just checking off the last boxes for the diploma.
A recent Crimson op-ed astutely noted that the promised “Harvard Everywhere” program doesn’t really seem to be anywhere. And the Editorial Board, which I co-chair, ran a staff editorial calling out Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana for an email subject-lined “Checking In” that ironically seemed to highlight just how little checking in there actually has been.
Living just off campus brings that all the more powerfully home. Walking through Harvard Yard as anonymously as a tourist leaves me with a bitter sense of uncanniness, estrangement in a place of so much familiarity.
Of course, I couldn’t be that bitter about eight free COVID-19 tests. Though Nguyen had framed it as my contribution to the community, it was equally Harvard’s contribution to me. University President Lawrence S. Bacow has made it very clear that these tests aren’t cheap — “tens of millions of dollars” spent already. Frankly, I’m not all that sympathetic. Instead, staring at the eight tests, I felt something more akin to guilt. The self-righteousness of “What about me?” — the sense that my mucus was more valuable than my actual presence — quickly soured into the self-loathing of “Why me?”
What other 500 people might benefit from eight contact-free, super-speedy antigen tests? Essential workers? Medically vulnerable demographics? How about the approximately 555 homeless Cambridge residents?
In fact, the city has said it will not be able to shelter as many homeless this winter due to social distancing requirements. Though I am no expert, it seems like a problem testing access could at least partially mitigate. What if we substituted the 500 students Harvard has decided to test with 555 homeless residents? Imagine what the city could do with those tests to limit transmission and increase capacity in shelters.
And make no mistake: Testing right now is zero-sum. What Harvard kids get, others don’t. Testing shortages have to do not with distribution so much as with a lack of the necessary reagents to process kits, a problem faced by two-thirds of United States labs and hitting the least privileged the hardest.
By a twist of numerical coincidence, the fact that the privilege of us 500 Harvard kids seems to rest precisely on the suffering of the 555 Cambridge homeless becomes painfully apparent. If my ilk and I form a sort of Harvard shadow campus — a ghostly presence that hovers around Harvard, both part of the community and not — the homeless live in the shadow of that shadow.
The world around Harvard seems to unfold in layers of notedness — levels of visibility, realms of worthiness. Of course, that’s always the case. I think of the homeless men of color brutalized by Harvard police officers in the Smith Campus Center. I think of the banquets in Annenberg not a stone’s throw from the hunger in the Square. I think of students happily blazing along the river, while opioid overdoses among the homeless rage across New England. I think of The Crimson crisply stacked in entryways and the man selling copies of Spare Change. COVID-19, as with so many things, brings these contrasts into relief.
And in that sense, those twin questions — “What about me?” and “Why me?” — don’t sit well together. They leave me with a strange cognitive dissonance: to feel at once neglected and overly privileged, to feel both that the University is failing me and that it is failing the world by serving me too lavishly.
But COVID-19 has also opened up the possibility that they are not actually separate questions — that, in fact, the failures of Harvard in aspects of caring for its students is inextricably linked to its failure to share its resources more justly with the world. When the University assumes that care for its students is merely a matter of resources and spending, it both further instantiates wealth and resource inequality and fails to provide its students with the intimate, invaluable guidance and support they need. But when it spreads that wealth around, divests in some profound sense from the injustices it rests upon, it will also force itself to more deeply reckon with what students might need.
A couple of caveats: First, I’m fortunate to have a lot of incredible professors and graduate student mentors who have supported me personally and academically through this and so many previous semesters.
Second, care isn’t free. The University, for example, has long struggled to martial the financial means to meet mental health counseling needs.
But mental health counselors, while vital, are only one pathway toward student wellbeing. Arguably more important is a culture of flexibility, shifting values about how students should spend their time, and more holistic and longitudinal advising. The happiest, most engaged students are not necessarily those at the wealthiest, most spend-happy institutions. And, in fact, the relationships I’ve had with faculty and graduate students make that all the more clear. Still, there’s more (and particularly more reflection) that should be done.
The transition to online education with no reprieve in tuition costs has rightly inspired many to ask why a Harvard education needs to be so exclusive in the first place. Any valid defense of a small College community can no longer proceed strictly from the academic experience itself; it has to attend to these questions of care and intimacy. And any meaningful defense will help students reconcile that paradox of the undergraduate condition: so privileged and yet so distant from a certain sort of care; so desperately aware of the fact that our education is premised on the exclusion of others and yet to some extent excluded ourselves.
Isaac O. Longobardi ’21, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Social Anthropology concentrator in Eliot House.