An inconvenient flu: Understanding the College’s response to the H1N1 outbreak

Over the past week, swine flu hysteria has been at the forefront of the popular conscience both on and off campus. Suspected cases of the disease have been reported from the far reaches of the globe to the campus of our archrival Amherst, only 50 miles away. Here at the College, concerns about swine flu have necessitated unpopular changes to operating protocol. From mild grumblings to moral outrage, the negative reactions to these exigencies often miss the reasoning behind them.

While we generally hesitate to appreciate institutional perspectives that guide these decisions from above, in this case we believe that the administrative actions were, on the whole, responsible and in the campus’s best interest. Changes in dining hall protocol were not designed to benefit individuals but to protect the campus as a unit; even if the virus is not life-threatening to individuals, it poses threats to the larger College community, of which we are all a part. While some inconsistencies in execution lead us to question the standardization of this institutional response, for the most part the administration had the right idea, and students should remember that occasional, small compromises to their individual conveniences are a part of belonging to a community.

Efforts to heighten campus awareness and minimize the potential spread of the disease included increased sanitization and numerous all-campus e-mails. Most felt by students, however, were the changes made to Dining Services’ operations, such as temporarily closing the ’82 Grill and Eco Café and relocating staff to other dining halls, eliminating most self-service and reducing menus across the board.

Thus, Dining Services and custodial staff carry the brunt of the College’s protocol change, and we thank them for taking on the location changes, shift switches and new tasks that have been requested of them.

While the College’s reaction to swine flu has not by any means been perfectly conceived or implemented, it was important for the College to take preventative action. For a contained residential community like the College, sensitivity to a virus that can rapidly infect large numbers of people is not hypochondria, but prudence. Even assuming cases of swine flu remain mild and treatable, having a large margin of our small campus infected with the flu would pose serious consequences in terms of health professional and treatment availability.

Furthermore, it would have been irresponsible to assume the impenetrability of our purple bubble, especially in light of the national coverage of the uncertainty surrounding how exactly the virus functions. Given our ties to friends and families outside the bubble, administrative action was imperative, for even beyond students’ safety, matters of publicity and liability were also at stake.

It may be some time before we know the exact extent of the epidemic, but these decisions are not being made in a vacuum: If the Center for Disease Control encouraged cautionary measures, then the College was wise to heed. Nevertheless, in order for this covenant between us and administrators to work, the latter must uphold their end of the bargain. Student outrage has not been driven solely on the sheer inconvenience of the situation but also a perceived inconsistency in the implementation of these new policies. Within dining halls, students have to ask for their peas and carrots while cereal dispensers and soda machines are left unmanned. Across dining halls, mandated precautions vary enough to compromise the integrity of the changes to the point where many student question the purpose of the policies in the first place and even develop conspiracy theories that attribute the changes to budgetary concerns, a charge that the administration has denied.

This uncertainty and doubt could have been tempered had the administration been more forthcoming with the premises that informed its decision-making process. Students would appreciate a reasoned explanation of the protocol – why target serving spoons and not weightlifting benches at the Upper Lasell Fitness Center? – to understand how precisely administrators decided that the current policy is the best one for campus.

It is all too easy to point out the ways in which these policies have affected each of us on an individual level. That said, our personal inconvenience may at times be subordinated to the safety of the community as a whole, and it was with the latter in mind that the administration made its decisions. In order to be a part of this residential campus community, we all make concessions in our day-to-day lives, and in instances such as this further concessions are needed to ensure the safety not only of the students, but also more importantly of the institution as a whole.