Students shift perspectives on COVID-19 as spread of disease progresses in US
In the past three weeks, more than 80% of students living on the Hill have moved out. (Daily Bruin file photo)
By Jintak Han
March 30, 2020 1:57 p.m.
This post was updated March 30 at 9:38 p.m.
The novel coronavirus has upended life at UCLA in a matter of weeks, leaving the Hill devoid of students returning from spring break.
Even before the number of cases in the U.S. exploded in March, the coronavirus had already been wreaking devastation around the world since its discovery in December.
But as Americans realized where they lived was no longer a safe haven from the outbreak, public opinion, including that of students, converged to a state of uncertainty and concern.
The Daily Bruin took a look back at how students’ views changed in the past three weeks and the forces that shaped them.
A New Reality
About three weeks ago on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.
A few hours later, Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife Rita Wilson tested positive for the virus while in Australia. The NBA suspended the 2020 season a half-hour later after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive, followed by his teammate Donovan Mitchell. A tweet from a Los Angeles Times reporter went viral.
what a year this last half hour has been
— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) March 12, 2020
And that same day, UCLA began its first day of completely remote instruction, initially planned until April 10. It was the start of a period during which the campus shut down, spring classes went completely online, study abroad programs were canceled and commencement was thrown into chaos.
Students did not know what to expect. Some thought the school was taking it too far. Others thought UCLA should have acted faster.
Either way, they all faced a single dilemma: Should I stay or should I go home?
On March 15, Dayshawn Louden, a fourth-year African American Studies student, was shopping for groceries at Target with Fiona Wong, a second-year undeclared student, as they normally did.
“I’m not as freaked out,” Louden said on March 15. “I wash my hands daily. I carry a bottle of hand sanitizer, just do everything normally.”
Wong said she and Louden thought social media was at fault for creating mass hysteria.
“They’re just not showing how high the recovery rates are. Instead, they’re showing the bad parts,” Wong said. “Oh, it’s spreading here, it’s spreading there. Yes, it’s going to spread but it’s not like you’re going to get it immediately.”
Louden said he recognized the dangers of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But he said he was most concerned about the xenophobic language President Donald Trump used in his press conferences. Trump had repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and a “foreign virus.”
“Because we are in America, often things become racialized,” Louden said. “I don’t want the face of the coronavirus to be like some Asian dude in a mask.”
Despite his skepticism, Louden planned to return home to Carson, California. Remote instruction made staying on campus a meaningless expense, he said.
It would still be safe to stay on campus considering how many people are moving out, Wong said. She was only going back to the Bay Area because of a family emergency unrelated to the coronavirus.
“I’d rather be here,” Wong said. “What they’re saying is just avoid mass crowds. … I guess they’re just trying to contain it. There’s nothing wrong containing it, but I think freaking out over it and overstocking is not very (helpful).”
About two hours after Louden and Wong spoke to the Daily Bruin, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti started shutting the city down to contain the pandemic, ordering restaurants and bars to close or stop offering dine-in service.
Carol Lin, on the other hand, had been monitoring the spread of the pandemic back at home in Atlanta, as well as in Los Angeles. Lin feared as the pandemic progresses, UCLA might put in place a campuswide quarantine before she could fly home.
“It’s inevitable,” said Lin, a second-year business economics student, on March 12. “The spread of the coronavirus to the UCLA campus is ultimately going to happen.”
Lin said the university should have notified students earlier of its decision to cancel classes. Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and is the most populous county in the state, announced the closure all of its public schools March 9 after a middle school teacher tested positive for the virus.
“They probably already had to make the decision to go online at least a few days before the actual announcement,” Lin said. “Letting students know and have that peace of mind is better than what they did, which was (waiting) until the day before to tell us.”
Lin flew home March 19, hours before Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to stay at home. She had decided the benefits of flying home and taking classes remotely outweighed the risks of traveling during a developing global pandemic, even as airport personnel began testing positive for the coronavirus.
“Moving classes online is one step, but if the virus is still spreading after spring break, I don’t want to be stuck here,” Lin said. “Either way I’m gonna be stuck somewhere so it might as well be at home. And especially right now it’s not as bad as it’s going to be.”
For others, the university’s response to the spreading coronavirus, not the pandemic itself, was the final straw.
Zoe Igarashi, a third-year exchange student from Waseda University in Japan, visited UCLA to study international development. But once UCLA moved instruction online until April 10, Igarashi saw no purpose in staying in the United States any further.
“The reason I wanted to study abroad is to communicate with friends here and make real conversation with Americans,” Igarashi said on March 15. “And also to be more active. If there’s no physicalness, there’s no point.”
Igarashi decided to end her exchange program a quarter early and booked a flight back to Tokyo for March 19.
“I know that the staff at LAX tested positive, so that’s kind of scary,” Igarashi said. “My mom told me not to take off (my) mask during the entire fight. I’ll try to do that.”
Coming to Terms
Two weeks later, the world hardly looks like the same place.
The 2020 Olympics were moved to 2021. The United States overtook China as the country with the most coronavirus cases. Gov. Gavin Newsom put California under a statewide “stay at home” order. A drive-thru testing center occupied a Jackie Robinson Stadium parking lot usually filled with UCLA baseball fans.
The number of reported cases of COVID-19 at UCLA has now grown to seven, after its first reported case March 16. Chancellor Gene Block moved commencement ceremonies online, then reversed the decision and apologized following student outcry.
And Lin, Igarashi, Louden and Wong were all under self-quarantine after returning home from Los Angeles.
“My backpack, the one that I brought on the plane, I left it in the garage because I’m very scared,” said Lin on March 23 from her room in Atlanta. “I don’t want to bring any virus inside.”
Once Lin had gotten home on March 19, she said her doctor recommended she immediately isolate herself in her room.
“Luckily I have access to my TV,” Lin said. “But like for the most part, I’m in my room. And if I do want to go out there a little bit, like in my house, I have to wear a mask. I try not to sit down on anything.”
Lin said she was glad she was home, although she said she was a bit concerned about taking classes over a three-hour time difference.
When Igarashi flew home to Japan on March 19, the Japanese government only recommended she quarantine herself in a hotel or isolate at home.
“My friend was thinking to stay in a hotel because she couldn’t go back home,” Igarashi said on March 23. “(But she said) if the hotel site knows that you’re (one of the) people who came back from abroad, they won’t be able to take your booking … because (it’s) kind of risky.”
Quarantines became mandatory in Japan on March 23. Luckily, Igarashi said, Waseda University starts remote instruction for the upcoming semester after April 20.
“My parents, they definitely wanted me to (be) back home,” Igarashi said. “It’s the safest place, you know?”
Annette Regan, an adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology at UCLA, specializes in respiratory and infectious diseases. Regan said although cultural differences limit any comparison of containment strategies between countries, social distancing is the best way to counter the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s really, really hard to completely control respiratory viruses,” Regan said. “In the absence of having an effective vaccine, really our best control measure is this social distancing. … What it’s really trying to do is make it so that the virus spreads more slowly for the community.”
Igarashi said she was worried for her friends in Japan, who were holding large gatherings without any social distancing.
“I feel like they are not that worried about (COVID-19),” Igarashi said.
Louden and Wong packed up to leave Westwood on March 25. Louden was going back to Carson and Wong was waiting for a friend to drive her up to San Francisco.
“Honestly, I don’t want to leave,” Wong said. “I feel like college is where I want to be.”
The continuing flood of concern about coronavirus on social media didn’t frighten Wong any further. She’s just tired of reading about it, she said.
“I definitely think it’s getting more serious,” Wong said. “I don’t think it’s ever been not serious.”
Regan said although the “stay at home” measures are crucial to containing the coronavirus, they may have exacerbated the public’s dependence on social media.
“We have the ability to create this panic spiral where it gets communicated constantly through our lives while we’re stuck at home, in the news, and then we all communicate it through different channels, through Facebook, through Twitter, through Snapchat,” Regan said. “And then it just constantly becomes all-consuming and it creates this panic and anxiety.”
Instead, Regan said the press has a duty to keep the public informed, including about those who have died from the virus, but it should do so without inciting panic.
“We had our first death under 18 in LA this week,” Regan said. “We’ve seen a couple cases (of) people in their 20s that were in the hospital with COVID. And I think sharing stories like that are important to show that it’s not just older adults that are going to be impacted by the virus.”
Louden said he viewed the pandemic more seriously after learning about 80% of people in California who tested positive for the coronavirus – which he thought mainly affected the elderly – were under the age of 65.
“Oh, wow,” Louden said. “That’s staggering.”
Both Louden and Wong quarantined themselves in their rooms after returning home.