We need to start addressing the serious effects that long Covid is having on students.
It’s the part of the pandemic that everyone wants to forget. The alienating and exhausting part. But if you’re living with long covid then you can’t just forget, because it overwhelms you.
My mum hasn’t been the same since March 2020. It’s not just a dry cough lingering for longer than it should – that went away pretty quickly. The fatigue, though, is all-consuming. A 20-minute phone conversation is her wiped out for the rest of the day, as she finds herself beset by the grip of this invisible fiend that just keeps digging and digging and digging.
The brain fog is the worst part. It’s almost as if the virus has forged a gaping chasm, swallowing up her synapses and stopping her from stringing a sentence together. There’s nothing tangible causing this, like there would be for something like a head injury. There isn’t even a positive test, because she fell ill at the start of the pandemic when they weren’t accessible unless you were admitted to hospital. It’s just happening to her, and all I can do is watch.
“It’s almost as if the virus has forged a gaping chasm, swallowing up her synapses and stopping her from stringing a sentence together.”
Although each individual experience of long covid will be different, there are two especially damaging aspects. The first is the daily grind, because you have to devote such a large proportion of your precious 24 hours – yes, Molly Mae, this is aimed – to sleeping. But even the remaining periods of consciousness are at best an arduous drudgery, and it’s incredibly difficult to undertake the things society expects of you when you’re physically drained for 95% of the day.
The second is just how isolating it is to live with long covid. My mum has been to the shops on a smattering of occasions since she became unwell because each trip requires such a lengthy recovery. She hasn’t been anywhere outside that could be described as “social”, so she relies on occasional visits to our front door for a crumb of interaction with anyone other than my dad. For those living by themselves, it’s even tougher.
When illness cuts someone off from the outside world it can almost feel like the outside world forgets about them. I was still in my first year of sixth form when my mum first became unwell. My friends would ask about her regularly, but then gradually stopped, because I could only give the same answer every time, and they would only give a disappointed “oh” in response. Long Covid is the forgotten part of this pandemic, but it also exacerbates another pandemic: loneliness.
“When illness cuts someone off from the outside world it can almost feel like the outside world forgets about them.”
All of this makes me worried. The second semester is commencing while the omicron variant is thriving, and the University has already emailed saying that in-person classes may be disrupted due to covid-related staff shortages. While omicron may induce less severe illness than previous variants, its impact on long covid is unclear. 134,000 people aged 17-25 have been estimated to be experiencing some degree of long covid symptoms, while many long-covid clinics have up to 10-month waiting lists. A sizeable proportion of UofG students are therefore likely to be suffering from long Covid.
Its first aspect, the daily grind, makes full participation in university life incredibly difficult, especially where deadlines need to be met or in-person classes need to be attended. Since the experiences of long Covid sufferers are similar to those living with chronic illness, there is a risk that the former will experience the same ableism faced by the latter. Jamie Martin, a first-year politics student, falls into this latter category. They said: “I use a screen reader on my laptop at times because reading large chunks of text gives me migraines, but a lot of the required reading is just pictures of textbook pages with no accessible alternative.” They continued: “My accommodations aren’t under the system next to my name so if I need an extended deadline for an assignment I have to work it out individually with the teacher rather than it being applied automatically.”
“Since the experiences of long Covid sufferers are similar to those living with chronic illness, there is a risk that the former will experience the same ableism faced by the latter.”
As well as struggling to have their needs accommodated, students with long Covid risk suffering from the second aspect: isolation. Those poky rooms in uni halls are not designed for inhabitants to spend lengthy periods of time in them, while the expectation that uni life fosters one’s inner social butterfly will simply not be true for those too fatigued to get out of bed.
The fear, then, is that students with long covid become a forgotten cohort, abandoned because a miraculous story of recovery isn’t forthcoming, and inspiration porn isn’t there to be exploited. Instead, this pandemic should be a wake-up call. The adverse experiences of students with chronic illness should be understood, rectified and applied to students with long covid, because both groups should be able to enjoy university too, just with some flexibility. But if those with long covid struggle to the extent that they cannot continue their studies, or they become isolated and depressed, we won’t know about their experiences, the process of accommodating them cannot begin, and ultimately they will remain forgotten.
To forget would be to allow the scourge of ableism to flourish. That is neither fair nor just.