Coronavirus, Social Responsibility, and University Inaction

Words by Nicholas Birchall

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Artist Impression of UofA Suits

We currently find ourselves in unique times. In the context of this massive social change, the University of Adelaide finds itself in an interesting position. The decision NOT to transition into online classes has left many students baffled. It is important to discuss what COVID-19 means in the context of Australia and the advice we’ve been provided with thus far. It is also necessary to look at the social context this outbreak takes place in, and to dissect the effect of inaction, and what this could potentially mean for us as a university, but also in the wider, societal context.

It is valuable to first look at the advice we as an Australian population have been provided regarding looking out for ourselves and each other. On the 13th of March the government issued a statement advising against gatherings of over 500 people, not including essential services or institutions such as schools, universities, shopping centres, or public transport, while seeking to emphasise that the current threat to Australians remains low, and these are merely precautionary measures. We’ve also been advised that upon first being presented with flu-like symptoms to get tested and begin a process of self-isolation. Unfortunately for us, it’s bloody hard to get tested at the moment, and as such we genuinely do not have a proper grasp on how fast this disease is spreading. On top of this, many individuals may be asymptomatic while carrying and spreading the virus.

The advice we are receiving from our government and health professions is to act pre-emptively, to slow the spread so our drastically underfunded health sector can keep up. There’s plenty of finger pointing to be done as to why we’re not better prepared for a situation like this, but that sadly lingers ever so tantalisingly beyond the scope of this article.

I would’ve been under the impression that a place thousands of individuals spend daily, touching things, breathing on, and rubbing up against one another, would be one of the first places to cease physical operations. Unfortunately, Adelaide University remains on its quest to keep the doors open. Yesterday (16/3), Flinders University threw in the towel for on campus operations, announcing that lectures, tutorials and seminars would be transitioned fully online. This is not to mention countless colleges and universities in both America and the east coast of Australia that have already begun this transitional process.

Last night’s emails from the Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer did nothing to assure students of their own safety. It offered no concessions in any regard related to work or class. Many students are still required to attend compulsory tutorials or seminars for grades, and as perfectly put by SRC President Henry Armfield in his email to the suits last night:

“Forcing students to choose between their health and their grades has already caused significant strain on some students’ mental health, which should be of utmost concern to the University.” If you’ve not read Henry’s full email, I encourage you to do so. You can find a transcription of it here.

It is absolutely shameful that the University at the very leas has not removed compulsory attendance grades from classes. By removing student’s autonomy, you are making it very clear that you think you know what’s best. Well I’m honestly not convinced.

As individuals that make up a society, there is an inherent social responsibility we owe to one another. We can’t afford to be selfish in dire times. Individualism will only separate us, and benefit no-one long term. Look at our grocery stores at the moment. The shelves are empty as though a biblical swarm of locusts has moved through. These selfish actions have consequences, and only hurt our most vulnerable.

Although to many, COVID-19 will just be a very bad cold, but to many high-risk individuals, or those with pre-existing medical conditions, it could very well be life-threatening. By not attempting to limit its spread now while we can, we condemn a portion of our population.

The university has shown it understands the need to be pre-emptive. It has already postponed and cancelled other large events. I ask it now to do the same with our education. It is not implausible to shift tutorials online. The infrastructure to do so exists, and is currently being used by many schools to accommodate unwell children. I do understand for some courses, there is no alternative. You can’t do a titration from behind a computer screen, but nor should you be penalised as a result.

SRC Environmental Officer, Ahmed Azhar, and SRC General Councillor, Ben Foster put out a statement last night perfectly explaining what is required of the University to help its students, and I’d encourage you to read it.

We’ve been continually on the back foot as a country since this outbreak began. It’s time for us to stop being reactive, and for once take the initiative. It’s foolish to wait until this becomes a greater issue. I implore the university to reconsider its decision. These actions have consequences far beyond the confines of our campus.

DISCLAIMER: Nicholas’ article does not reflect the views of On Dit, but rather just his own.

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Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Nicholas Birchall, Felix Eldridge, Taylor Fernandez and Larisa Forgac. Email us at

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