COVID-19’s arrival in Portsmouth feels like a long time ago. University of Portsmouth creative writing student, Morgan Turner, recounts that unnerving time – and how he dealt with the challenges that followed.
With a Co-op bag stretched with cheap cider, I steadily approached Greetham Street at around nine o’clock on Monday the 16th of March. In no remarkable way was this walk any different to the past 100 times I’d made the same trip. However, something felt off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Perhaps it was because the night was still? February’s beastly storms had passed and no longer was I having to risk my body becoming a waypoint marker for other party-goers on the trek to Guildhall walk. But no, it wasn’t that; my feeling was much more guttural – primitive and instinctive. Although I chose to ignore this feeling, it began to stew and kept nagging into pre-drinks, where again, everything looked normal but felt off. I sat at the window and began to drink. I discovered I wasn’t in the mood. Instead, I smoked a cigarette and watched the game of beer-pong going on at the kitchen table.
As this was happening, me and some friends on the sofa began a conversation about the current state of Coronavirus, and how it was impacting our lives as students. We spoke about many things: how lectures would continue; student loans; mental health risks; quarantine situations; what summer would be like and so on. The conversation went pretty deep and, although it was helpful and even insightful, I think we as individuals would all agree that we came out of it more confused than enlightened. I realised that none of us knew what the hell was going on, nor what the hell was going to happen; for now everything was speculation and hearsay.
I looked at my near-empty can and then glanced back up to the students daintily laughing around the kitchen table. A wave of insecurity consumed me; an unfamiliar sensation. I now didn’t feel safe in that flat, nor did I feel in control. I decided to leave early with another mate who didn’t want to risk clubbing either, sharing infectious handshakes and half-seriously bidding good luck to some of the other twenty people there before they made their way to Pryzm. I walked home a little faster than I came. As I did, I noticed the bright lights of fast-food shops, pubs and clubs, still open for business, as if it were nothing. All I could think in that moment was, ‘What are we doing? What’s our plan?’
As a student I understand students, and it doesn’t matter what course we’re on, be it musical theatre or mechanical engineering – we’re all thick! This applies to college students too, and likely any other young adults old enough to drink. For the record, I’m not excluding myself from this harsh blanket statement either. I mean, I very nearly followed my friends into Pryzm on that Monday, and I have a decent case of asthma which should have given me at least pause for thought. I remember thinking, ‘No matter their advice, as long as the government allows clubs and pubs to stay open, students in Portsmouth and throughout the country will not take the matter seriously enough.’ And could you blame us? We’re young, have good immune systems and feel that if something is serious enough, the government will act accordingly and shut down establishments that attract high volumes of people. Right?
Along with this, I knew a lot of students who were ignorantly protecting themselves with the false idea that something so serious as a pandemic could never happen in this country. They’d already been posting nervous jokes and memes on Facebook and Instagram. If these posts received a lot of ‘likes’ then this would be validation of their false ideas about us being fine, or the virus being a glorified version of the flu – which we quickly found out wasn’t true. This attitude pertained to the absence of leadership at that time; nobody knew what to believe between the government’s unnervingly calm approach and the media’s hysteria. ‘Close venues down and stop screwing around,’ I thought. There were at least 100 students in that queue for Pryzm on Monday the 16th of March, and I despaired to think of the mess we’d be in come Friday.
This lack of leadership and clarity was evident at Portsmouth University too.
My university inbox started to resemble how I imagined a fever dream to present itself physically; a flurry of emails from different departments, some of which I didn’t even realise existed, flooding me with conflicting, unclear and sometimes nonsensical information. I doubt that this helped the situation for confused and concerned students like myself.
At first the teaching buildings closed, yet other facilities were left open, such as the library which got packed with desperate – and possibly sick – students. I couldn’t make sense of this.
Despite halting all face-to-face teaching, the University was slow to let us know when exactly online learning would officially begin. Lecturers mentioned that teaching would start after Easter, but it took a while to receive any official dates or solid methods for carrying out these classes. It was clear that lecturers hadn’t been made aware of any further plans and, like us, had also been left in the dark. Some of them phoned me to keep in touch with my progress, or emailed me classwork, or said they’d wait until after Easter to set up Skype groups – or something like that. There was talk of not worrying about coursework. Such miscommunication couldn’t have helped with ensuring students would take this outbreak seriously. We were stuck trusting our close mates and gut instincts above anything else. And for students, this obviously meant going out to eat, drink and party.
Once I got home, things got worse. I was left alone with no one to talk with. I didn’t know if it was just me, but it really felt like the Russians were at the gates. I was trying to stay cool and stay informed, all whilst writing my coursework from the unbearable climate of my dad’s kitchen. This was light years away from what I’d expected from my first year at uni.
While I didn’t blame the university for the COVID-19 pandemic – that would have been stupid – I did blame them for not composing a plan as soon as the possibility of a worldwide virus was on the cards. As far as my emails from Studentnews@port.ac.uk suggest, a task force meant to deal with the virus wasn’t even implemented at the university until March 6th, which was already far too late. But I guess they weren’t the only institution to be slow off the mark – they were probably just following government advice and protocol. I didn’t receive a lot of important information for a long time, such as what was going to happen with our maintenance loans. This one really worried me, as I really didn’t want to be coughing up a term’s fees for a halls room that I wasn’t using. Luckily, this has since been sorted.
Over time, these questions were slowly but surely answered; some through chasing, phone calls, and emails; some through sheer luck and the settling of dust. By now, I’ve completed my coursework, despite stress and barely any online lessons. I’m happy with my results so far, and am now focusing on various creative projects.
And as lockdown continues and opportunities to socialise remain limited, take this time to enhance your worldview, begin playing that guitar you never learnt, or build that Lego stormtrooper army you vowed you’d build in the summer after Year 6. Get closer to your family. Read! At the start of lockdown, I joined a local volunteering group through the Council, to deliver food to the elderly and vulnerable. I felt I had to do my bit and, besides, it meant that I could leave the house.
Whatever you do, stay safe – not just from COVID-19, but from the darker side of your mind. The lockdown era has been and still is challenging, especially with not being able to see friends or family, and especially with the wild and provocative news that keeps on coming, like waves upon waves of nausea. Oh well, at least we’ve all learnt a valuable lesson: just because it’s 2020, and just because we live in the UK, doesn’t mean that something as big as COVID-19 can’t or won’t happen.
Keep on gritting your teeth, keep on pushing, and perhaps one day we’ll be able to look back on the negative events of 2020 as having been catalysts for positive change.