In Response to Malhotra: Sketching COVID-19’s social architecture

Hamza Mankor

In the last issue of the Record, Niko Malhotra argued that the College should loosen COVID restrictions for the mental health of the student body and to restore the campus culture. His article’s proclaimed concern for mental health and community building barely masks the argument that lurks under the surface — that COVID restrictions limit highly privileged students in a manner that only begins to resemble the pre-pandemic experience of marginalized students. 

I attended Williams before the pandemic. Unlike Malhotra, I was privy to the Williams he eulogizes, and I agree firmly that the experience has changed for the worst. But this is by fault of a global challenge to public health, not a tyrannical public health regime. The verbiage he attributed to the environment on campus  — “imposed,” “robbed,” “forced,” “recede,” “repress,” “enforce” for the administration; “bond,” “intimacy,” “trust,” “essence” for Williams itself — connotes public oppression by authoritarian powers alongside nostalgia for a utopian past, because Malhotra positions himself as “speaking truth to power.” He frames COVID restrictions as an institutional sickness made tangible by mental health, and takes a stance against this supposed social injustice. This is why his rhetoric implicitly recalls commentary on some of today’s political issues — right-wing rejection of “big government,” leftist melancholia towards a world battling COVID, and an America growing mentally exhausted of isolation.

Underneath the heroism, however, Malhotra’s message is merely privilege defending its interests. How do we trust, as he argues, vaccinated individuals to evaluate their own risks when we watch him (a member of this group, as am I) proudly proclaim that we should not sacrifice for immunocompromised community members, and insist that the dying ‘essence’ of the college culture is the strength of its community, which can be saved only by abandoning preventative health measures? No problem he identified from restrictions began with COVID — and neither did the selfishness underlying the argument’s logic. But this instance of Williams’ self-indulgence is particularly insidious because it obscures the influence of Williams’ intersectional inequities upon our COVID controversies, using an argument that only feigns concern for public health.

I do agree that Williams’ burgeoning mental health crisis has since proliferated in the wake of COVID. And I posit wholeheartedly that the administration has shirked attending to the trifecta of an under-resourced IWS program; underfunded Dining Services department; and social isolation policies structured around the disciplining of space instead of creating alternative options for social co-presence. This leaves students triply malnourished and left to fend for themselves, while further victimized by how the pandemic’s duration has eviscerated campus programming and RSO leadership. I refuse to deny the College’s current dearth of social spaces. 

But Malhotra’s pinning his argument for loosening restrictions upon mental health is dishonest. It pretends at egalitarianism while forsaking the many whose mental health has been strained by the adversities of the Williams-pandemic milieu beyond mandated isolation post-exposure. He says an environment of secrecy has arisen — but it is one that would dissolve if the few students flouting the restrictions bothered to organize COVID-safe social spaces, as friend groups, clubs, and some athletic teams regularly accomplish. He cites fear replacing trust as a the primary detriment to campus cohesion — but postures as if the majority of students fear punishment from “Big Brother” Williams and not their peers who risk spreading COVID to play King’s Cup. And this distrust is older than the pandemic. I am old enough to repudiate trust ever being the dominant campus sentiment for any Black, queer, or poor student; or frankly anyone, save for precisely these students who view Williams as their country-club playground and remain content to ignore those populations. 

It is those same students who, weekend after weekend, party recklessly in spite of how they have contributed to record COVID cases on campus; and now throw tantrums over masking requirements designed to protect community members not willing to risk COVID, yet claim they are robbed of intimate personal connection with whom they share institutional spaces. The discontent we see now amongst the student body with COVID — physical discomfort in social spaces due to the choices of an entitled fraction of the school — is the longstanding status quo for BIPOC students, and the pre-pandemic mental health crisis reflected that. Malhotra’s article sanctioned disregard for the well-being of others and insistence upon institutional access as a birthright. This logic does not belong to the pandemic. It is ancient, and has only gained a more vivid physical architecture with COVID.

But to go as far now as to pervert the general mental health crisis because Hoxsey Street lacks partygoers is stupefying in its self-importance. The parties are clearly happening anyway. The question is why Goff’s and Hoxsey Street carry on partying while Rice stands silent and other Williams programming fails to meet people’s needs. It is the other realms of Williams’ social life that have truly taken losses. In yet another display of the privileged few sidestepping discomfort, Malhotra’s adherents only mourn the ability to party guiltlessly. 

We only have to look online, where the bulk of students’ fraternization in large groups occurs, to prove the link between his stance’s logic and privilege at Williams. Unmasked, a student-run mental health app for venting frustration, has been invaded by posters not simply venting but baiting for responses to their indictment of masking, often with politicized anti-liberal and anti-leftist overtones. Students on Yik Yak, a social media app where users post anonymously, littered the feed with posts glorifying Malhotra’s op-ed alongside its typical homophobic remarks and misogynistic jokes objectifying women. Reading between the lines of the resistance to restrictions, installed out of respect for the most cautious, reveals the social violences that inevitably accompany a lack of respect for one another.

I empathize with those restless and exhausted by the policies — I am just as tired, and remember the parts of Williams that we lost. But an argument telling Williams to “shut up and dribble” as if its commitment to a safe learning community could ever exclude limiting COVID’s spread is short-sighted.  Williams cannot solely commit to supplying a “rigorous education” because we also require a sense of home and comfort during our four years occupying dorms and classrooms. Williams is unable to “foster unified community” as long as some students clamor to party at the expense of their peers while boasting of their concern for all enrolled, rather than more maturely demanding that the school prepare more sophisticated allowances for socialization and support. The last continuity update announcing looser masking policies proved that with patience towards accomplishing what restrictions aim to achieve — limited COVID spread —  the campus can open up for everyone, rather than just for those willing to risk infecting themselves and others.

Malhotra’s article lacked vision in more ways than one — but most damningly, it failed to recognize that the problems facing Williams today are exacerbated, not caused, by the pandemic. The article’s argument stemmed from the same self-absorption that fuels the athlete-nonner divide, and reifies the College community’s intense stratification across race, sexuality, and class. It is disappointing to see such sentiments persist as I reflect on my time here. Our energy must be redirected to building a future we can share, not repairing a past that we cannot.

Hamza Mankor ’22 is a Critical Theory major from Jersey City, N.J.