Editorial: Trinity’s lacklustre Covid response is part of a national problem

College and government must overcome their obsession with “individual responsibility”

Trinity has not bathed itself in glory with respect to its Covid-19 policy this past month. A small outbreak in Goldsmith Hall on February 4 resulted in the entire accommodation complex being sent for testing, while several other cases were reported in on-campus housing. Its swift response of sending students to be tested was needed, but the problem is that College was either uncertain of or obfuscating the extent of the problem. Official communication from College that afternoon said that there was “one case” in main campus accommodation and three in Goldsmith, but an official at a town hall meeting that very evening spoke of a significant number of cases across residences, with multiple students who live on the main campus confirming to Trinity News that they had tested positive at the College Health Centre. Clearly something has gone awry.

In many ways though, Trinity is just taking its cues from the wider government response, which has been alarmingly hands-off. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly’s notorious thumbs up text and Leo Varadkar telling the Fine Gael parliamentary party on February 3 that Covid-19 will probably be around “for an eternity” – both recent incidents speak to a Cabinet that feels fundamentally passive about it all. Covid-19 is here, they don’t feel that anything they do will make a measurable difference, and they are mildly resentful of being asked to talk about it and deal with it constantly.

This in turn is reflected in their policy response and public messaging. The focus is very much on “individual responsibility” and what you, as a citizen, should be doing to help the country get through it. The line is “you shouldn’t be going to work” (as Dr Ronan Glynn said on February 2), rather than “we have passed regulations to compel workplaces to let employees work from home”. Press releases are full of language about how citizens need to proactively “remember to take precautions” and “take care of their mental health”, rather than laying out top-down strategies the government is taking or offering any kind of institutional support to people. The government had to be strongarmed by immense public pressure to introduce even at-home quarantine for travellers arriving into the country. And who can forget the decision to so rapidly remove restrictions at the end of November explicitly against NPHET advice, a decision which cost literally hundreds of lives? These are all the actions of a cabinet that wants to do the smallest amount that it can get away with because, again, the real issue here is “individual responsibility”.

And Trinity has embraced this. The primary response to the Goldsmith outbreak was an email reminder for people to wash their hands, stay away from each other and “familiarise yourself with the current regulations”. There was no mention of College itself doing anything more active than booking residents in for tests. Trinity has also embraced the logical follow-on of the individual responsibility narrative – a punitive approach to any transgressions. Because after all, if the primary responsibility for solving a global crisis falls on each individual student, there must naturally be a retributive response when they shirk that responsibility, right?

No one would argue that it was right, good, or unselfish of some Halls residents to breach either College’s or the government’s guidelines on social activity and gathering. It is obvious that students should not be putting others or themselves at risk of the virus by ignoring public health advice. But the response by some staff that students have reported is simply unacceptable. Students being subjected to “verbal abuse”, “swearing”, “attacks on someone’s nationality”, telling students they’re “f—king disgusting” and unspecified threats of “things worse than a fine” cannot be justified under any circumstances.

It would be wrong, however, to characterise these things as a simple, one-off mistake. These problems are systemic. It’s the end result of a system that’s designed punitively. If the system is centred around seeing guideline-breaching as a moral issue that must be punished, it’s not much of a leap to think that people who breach guidelines should be treated extremely harshly.

And the system is punitive. Instead of making more effort to support students who are isolated in their apartments for 23-24 hours a day, Halls management has drawn up lists of punishments including €100 fines, writing “essays about the importance of rules”, and on at least one occasion, evicting a student. This speaks to a deep contempt and condescension that the Warden Team has for the students in its care, viewing them as errant children (not that it would be acceptable to treat children this way either) who need to be disciplined until they fall in line, as opposed to rational adults struggling with loneliness and other issues in the midst of a uniquely difficult situation, and responding in ways that aren’t always totally upstanding.

A punitive approach makes no sense – it does nothing to address the root cause of the problems, that students need more help and support from their university during a difficult time, and instead just seeks to be retributive when problems crop up. On top of that, the specific punishments chosen are repugnant. Monetary fines only punish those who can’t afford to take the financial hit, eviction in the middle of a pandemic is wildly disproportionate to anything a resident could do (and ironically vastly increases the risk of them catching or passing on Covid), and there is no possible justification for mandatory essay writing except satisfying some desire for petty revenge on the part of the essay setter.

In short, this system will not do anything to make such infractions less likely in future – because students are still unsupported, isolated and struggling, and may therefore do things they shouldn’t – and is simply a gross failure on the part of Trinity in how it should be treating its students. College and Halls need to apologise to the students involved, rewrite their policy from the ground up, and teach their staff to treat students with basic respect.

And for their part, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) must come out with a stronger institutional response than suggesting students reach out to Welfare if they’re worried. Comms Officer Philly Holmes is right to say students are “adults and should be treated as such”, and President Eoin Hand needs not to excuse staff behaviour as simply a “loss of temper”. Students should not be breaching regulations – but there is no justification for verbal abuse.

A hands-off approach to the control of the virus on-campus and in student accommodation combined with an instinct to blame and belittle students for perceived wrongdoing is possibly the worst combination of policies possible. College needs to turn this around immediately. The virus has been present in Ireland for 11 months now, and the time when we could excuse this kind of institutional response is long past.