When it comes to COVID-19 guidelines, students are rightfully confused

Editorials Opinions

COVID-19 guidelines have never adequately considered the student population

covid-19 stock graphic
Stock photo via Pixabay

For almost two months, B.C. has had tightened restrictions in place to control the spread of COVID-19, including a ban on social gatherings. On Jan. 7, these restrictions were extended to Feb. 5. 

Though limiting social contact is difficult for everyone, B.C.’s current restrictions — and the province’s public health messaging throughout the pandemic — put many students in a difficult position. 

Currently, the restrictions limit any indoor or outdoor gatherings to only members of the same household. You can go for a walk or hike with a friend or family member, provided both of you keep your distance. People who live alone are allowed to see up to two people in their “core bubble.” For students who do not live with their immediate family or a partner, these restrictions leave many without a much-needed support system. 

Students’ circumstances often include multiple roommates, roommates’ partners, and people working in high-contact jobs. Conducting the constant risk assessment needed to meet public health guidance and limit the spread of COVID-19 is often exhausting. 

The guidelines themselves are not the problem and we want to stop the spread of COVID-19, too. The blatant disregard of them by some students, like those that still attend parties, is incredibly selfish. But for the majority of us that are trying our best, we just want clear information on how to navigate a pandemic with roommates. 

According to the guidelines, you can see a co-parent or partner that does not live with you. But what if you live in a house with four roommates that all have partners? And what if those partners have roommates? And what if these roommates and partners and partner’s roommates all work at a local cafe or restaurant where people are frequently removing their masks to eat? Or what if they work in a trade where they have to go in, albeit masked, to other people’s houses or busy construction sites? 

In December, students were particularly mentioned in provincial guidelines, with the explicit exception before the holidays that, “welcoming your child home from university is okay.” This guideline, however, also left students to navigate their roommate’s travel choices on their own. 

In a place like Victoria, the rental vacancy is so low that if a roommate isn’t following the restrictions, students can’t simply find a new place. We’ve all had at least one tense and awkward conversation with a close friend, partner, or roommate about our COVID-19 comfort levels and how to manage our own social contacts. 

Students experience tension between the risks of relatively high-contact lives through roommates or frontline customer service jobs and a loss of support systems by not necessarily living with the people who they are closest to.

 Facing guidelines that do not map neatly onto their lives is not a new challenge. From “bubbles” to a “safe six” to “core bubbles,” the different terms and associated levels of permitted contact with people outside of one’s household have left many people reeling. 

In a briefing in September, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addressed frustration around the ambiguity of guidance saying “it depends on our own situation and our own circumstances.” 

Guidelines have been so unclear and rapidly changing, that even Premier John Horgan came close to breaking them. He announced publicly that Health Minister Adrian Dix told him that it was alright to have his son and daughter-in-law over for Christmas dinner. However, according to the provincial guidelines contact has to be limited to household members only. 

From trying to understand earlier guidelines to navigating compliance with the current restrictions, students face a scenario of constant self-regulation that puts a strain on their relationships and mental health. Not everyone has a health minister “buddy” we can call on when rules and regulations seem unclear.

It’s clear that young adults are experiencing strains on their mental health: 61 per cent of youth surveyed in the Victoria Vital Signs report said their mental health has worsened during COVID-19. In the UK, early research on youth and COVID-19 shows people aged 18 to 29 have experienced higher levels of distress than any other age group during the pandemic. Simultaneously, young adults were unfairly blamed for causing the second wave of infections.

The Tyee outlined how international studies have shown that young people have been particularly compliant with hygiene measures and feel a deep sense of responsibility for the health and wellness of strangers. Yet when 20-somethings in B.C. look for more specific guidance on navigating romantic, familial, or important platonic relationships, they are left to negotiate their own solutions.

Students with dynamic living situations have not been provided with resources on how to talk to roommates about the responsibilities that arise when a household essentially shares an immune system. Policing other people’s actions, or attempting to absorb someone else’s risk by decreasing your own connections can put undue strain on relationships and mental health.

Though young adults are facing a lesser degree of ambiguity under the current restrictions — “don’t see anyone outside your household” is relatively clear — they still face public health guidance that does not easily align with their living situations and lives. Some of the confusion persists: are four young people living together, all with partners outside the home, really expected to not see their significant others? 

While this is in no way a justification for flagrant violations of public health orders, like the large gatherings near UVic that pop up from time to time, most young people aren’t doing this. Instead, they’re navigating often ambiguous public health guidance that limits their support systems while balancing disproportionate mental health and economic impacts, higher-contact jobs and living situations, and unfair blame for spreading COVID-19.

Students are certainly not the only group hoping for decreases in COVID-19 transmission, loosened restrictions, and a return to some social interaction. Throughout this pandemic they’ve faced a particular combination of stressors that often goes unrecognized in public discourse and health guidance. 

We can’t help but wonder: if Horgan was living with four roommates that all had partners and high-contact jobs, would he know what to do?