Changing plans to “flatten the curve”
Writing this from the confinement necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been thinking a great deal about the history of pandemics and about what it must have been like in the fall of 1918, when the influenza epidemic caused at least 219 Mount Holyoke students to fall ill and the College to set up emergency hospitals. Others were cared for in the dormitories, before the hospitals were ready. Four students contracted pneumonia, and, sadly, one died: a first-year student from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth M. Smith, class of 1922, who, according to President Mary Woolley, suffered “a very acute infection from the beginning.” Some of you may recall the article by Olivia Lammel ’14, “Campus Under Quarantine,” published in the winter 2015 edition of the Alumnae Quarterly, alongside an interview with Miriam Aschkenasy ’94, who at the time served as deputy director of global disaster response at Massachusetts General Hospital. Who could have foreseen that, within five years of this feature, we would be living through a pandemic of such consequence? And the more I read and think about COVID-19, the representations of the facts, the questions without answers, and the parallels of history and fiction, the more it reminds me that what this College and its community do matters, in these times and always.
As the current epidemic grew, first in China, then across Asia and Europe, we were concerned about our alumnae, family and friends in affected countries, as well as our students returning from winter break and those on their junior year abroad. With this coronavirus outbreak came fear, and with that fear a resurgence of structural anti-Asian racism, xenophobic and discriminatory responses, both social and political, which disproportionately targeted Chinese and Asian individuals. Contemplating the scattering of our community again, this time for spring break, and what it might mean to have to quarantine or isolate students upon their return — not to mention the pressure on the hospitals in western Massachusetts from the 38,000 students in the Five Colleges — it seemed unthinkable to continue as planned. And so, on March 10, we made the decision to get as many students home as we could (more than 1,800) and to complete the semester’s teaching and learning online. Behind that decision was a comprehensive emergency response strategy that placed equity and inclusion front and center. This includes hours of invisible labor by faculty and staff, the cooperation of students and their families and friends, and the generosity of alumnae and others who have supported the Emergency Student Relief Fund. Our response also involved myriad decisions about details: from storage to plane tickets; from refunds to financial aid policies and work study; from access to technology and accessibility to connectivity and accreditation rules; from information security to equity in grading; from telehealth and therapy practices and insurance to Department of Public Health dining guidelines; and from cleaning and reporting protocols to inventories of PPE to be donated, to name just a few areas requiring careful consideration.
As we sought to “flatten the curve,” to keep our campus and other communities safe by anticipating the lockdown that was yet to come, I attended data analytics webinars, read everything available to me and looked at Mount Holyoke’s hand-drawn and yellowed graph of 1918, which plotted student infections and their peak on September 24 of that year. In 2020 the data are ubiquitous, in interactive charts — ballooning and overlapping red circles — that appear in cell phone alerts, as well as in media of every kind, depersonalizing the lives, loves and identities behind escalating numbers that still remain relatively (and mercifully) low here in Hampshire County. The numbers are finally disclosing, too, the race and ethnicity of those impacted, unequally, leading to yet further evidence that the historic and systemic trifecta of economic inequality, healthcare injustice and housing inequities mean that both race and place clearly constitute underlying conditions.
It has become almost commonplace (and, as a French scholar, I cannot resist) to evoke Camus’ “La Peste” [“The Plague”], reprinted twice this year already, with commentators from Camus’ own daughter, Catherine (Kim Willsher, The Guardian, March 28), to Alain de Botton (The New York Times, March 19) talking about the novel as a tale for our — and for all — times. Catherine Camus muses that ours is a different time from that of the novel’s composition. Now, she says, “Everyone thinks they are right and forgets what life is about, that there are doubts.” She hopes that this time of reflection will cause us to “become more human.” For de Botton, plagues “are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man.” Camus’ message is, he argues, “when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history” and that “being alive was and always will remain an emergency,” an “inescapable ‘underlying condition.’”
While these are, indeed, core tenets of the novel, the claim to universalism should be questioned. The novel’s erasures, notably of the Arab population of Oran and of women, also speak to persistent challenges. While there are representations of the desperate living conditions of the former, and of the poor relationships between men and women, early in the novel, they are effectively dismissed in order to privilege a particularly gendered (exclusively male, and indeed white male) experience of brotherhood, which severely limits the universality of the human predicament it describes, and more so the novel’s much-vaunted redemptive qualities.
While women globally draw attention for their effective management of this crisis — notably the premiers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and Taiwan — showing that truth and decisive leadership make a difference, frontline healthcare workers, mostly women, globally, and often immigrant populations, too, are not only caring for the sick, they are now often also caring for their families and educating their children in lockdown. As the domestic and economic impacts of this are now being felt, it is likely that there will be pernicious gender and racial disparities yet to emerge, entrenching existing inequality. I am always so encouraged and inspired by the work of Mount Holyoke alumnae in challenging these inequities and pleased that we are able to celebrate some of them in this edition of the Alumnae Quarterly. Their work and yours is making a difference in communities worldwide, in the arts, fashion and technology, in business and finance, in medicine and in politics, in education, community building and race relations. This is the kind of community Mount Holyoke represents and the change that it brings.
The campus is quiet now, closed to all but the 280 remaining students and some essential workers, as the trees burst into flower and the flowers push upwards into the light, a testimony to life’s persistence, to hope and renewal, even in the face of such global sickness and loss. The bells ring out as usual, but no one is hurrying across the campus to class. The library is dark, the academic buildings shuttered, and the vast greens deserted. Camus was right to say that separation is “the greatest agony of [this] long period of exile.” Instead, we are Zooming. We are a mosaic of squares — large, concentrating, diverse faces against a backdrop of cluttered or staged domesticity, or of intentional elsewheres, in our green screen topographies of vacations past, or reality shows of a quotidian interrupted by children, family members and other creatures with whom we share our homes. In October 1918, a junior wrote in the Mount Holyoke News of the empty classrooms: “It is almost a habit. Classes seem incidental. If we awake in the morning, feeling unusually sleepy, we decide to stay in bed — at least some people do. We excuse ourselves and the truth is not in us.” In 2020, we may worry about those not logging on for asynchronous learning, but while the motivation to work in this way and in these radically changed circumstances may be temporarily diminished or, at least, harder to activate, the quest for and commitment to truth and the call to leadership and for change prevails at Mount Holyoke College.