A blessing in disguise seems an apt description now, looking back. The minor injury which meant Freek had to miss a couple of sessions of soccer training. “Otherwise the source and contact tracing would have had me calling not seven but maybe eighty people.”
Monday September 21st came the phone call both dreaded and offering long-awaited certainty: Freek's corona test was positive. A week earlier the cold symptoms had begun, “completely out of the blue”. The Mechanical Engineering student was not, as he himself says, instantly on the alert, but decided to get tested anyway. “I stopped coming within three meters of the others right then and there.” It wasn't long before more symptoms appeared: a slight fever and the cold reached his nose. This was followed by an abrupt loss of smell and taste when he sat down to his breakfast on Saturday morning. “I had no idea what I was eating.”
That same day, he cycled to and from the walk-thru testing station in Eersel, fifteen kilometers one way. As a matter of fact, he was due to get tested the day before in Helmond, “but that turned out to be smack in the middle of an online test for my academic studies, so I switched my appointment.”
Housemate Rebecca (student of Biomedical Engineering) had meanwhile decided to play it safe and had swapped her own student house for that of her girlfriend Iris. You can run, but you can't hide, as the saying goes: now Iris too is displaying symptoms that warrant her applying for a test. “My girlfriend is chronically ill, so corona poses a bigger risk to her than it does to me. But the appointment she was given isn't for a couple of days - and it's in Uden. As a student, how are you supposed to an out-of-the-way testing site if you're not allowed to take public transport and you're too ill to cycle? They advised us to ring again today,” Rebecca explains Wednesday morning via MS Teams.
Until then, Rebecca and Iris are staying at Iris's house - a house where the housemates live in equally close proximity to each other, with a communal kitchen and shared bathroom facilities, as they do in her own Stratumse house. A choice between two evils, as Rebecca says: “Corona is definitely in my house. It might not be here, so that makes me feel a little safer.”
Freek doesn't hold it against her. In any event, the two not-at-the-moment housemates count themselves lucky to have a relaxed atmosphere in their house, “and during the lockdown too, there was never any question of quarrelling or frustration building up,” says Rebecca. “Everyone was spending a lot more time at home though,” says Freek, “so we saw a lot more of each other.” Rebecca does not recall a house meeting about corona ever being held. “We are a household. When we're at home and it's just us, that 1m50 is impossible for us to keep to. It was not really a issue, that's simply how it was.”
Outside the house everyone did (and does) handle corona in their own way, says the student, “and we trust each other to do that sensibly. I remember, for example, that early on Freek went to the supermarket as little as possible and when he did he bought everything in one go. I didn't do that. For the rest, we didn't have any visitors, of course. When, at some point, that was allowed again, we would sometimes ask each other how many visitors one of us was expecting. But we never held parties or that sort of thing. And we didn't go looking for them either.”
She continues, “At my student association everything initially went online and a really strict policy was adopted, for example about making any arrangements between ourselves to meet up; that was not allowed. For a while my social life was a hairbreadth's from grinding to a halt.” Freek was pleased when at some stage he was able to start playing soccer again, “although at first it seemed more like some version of volleyball at 1m50. When it all started, you avoided places and other people as much as you could, but at some stage you simply started doing things again.”
However carefree the summer had felt for many, for Rebecca it was a wake-up call when in August it was decided that, for instance, associations were not allowed to hold any parties during Intro - not even at 1m50. This threw her association's plans into disarray. A more recent wake-up call came in the form of the symptoms displayed by two housemates, Freek being one of them, which brought coronavirus to her doorstep. Soon after it crossed the threshold.
Since then the housemates have been playing it safe. One is temporarily sleeping elsewhere, generous distances are being observed within their walls, and the cleaning is more rigorous than it has ever been. Even so, Freek cherishes a tiny flame of hope that time will soon reveal that he and his housemates have all been infected (and are already over it), “then we'll all have had it and can put it behind us for a while. In any event, for a while we'd be free of the uncertainty we now feel.”
The main thing Rebecca is looking forward to is her girlfriend Iris getting some clarity, “It's a question of waiting to see what her test reveals. It may be that the result launches us into a whole new period of quarantine.” Not that for Rebecca, incidentally, this would mean making changes to the way she's going about her life. As she emphasizes, “We have always stuck closely to the rules, and that's what we are still doing. It is my small contribution to society.”
That being said, she can still get pretty riled up about some events in this same society. “I can still get really mad about, say Intro, about how clinically we have had to organize and arrange everything in our association. Even now at our drinks parties we are still strictly observing 1m50, keeping our chairs on floor markers, drinking out of disposable cups, and arriving in shifts, having signed up in advance. And there's a lot of cleaning going on. It's all much stricter than in the average café. Then after an evening at the association, I walk home along Stratumseind. What do I see? People draped over each other, hanging onto each other, and no sign of anyone reading them the riot act.”
The emphatic finger pointed chiefly in the direction of ‘the students’, the group currently pushing up the corona statistics, which to her mind means lumping together pretty much all young people, understandable elicits little sympathy from Rebecca. “Evidently there simply has to be a scapegoat, but I'm being punished with unjust harshness.” Freek, on the other hand, understands something of why students are under scrutiny. “As a young person with a lot of contacts, you have a huge responsibility at this time, of course you do. Considering this, I think the present rules are actually too lax.”
Whether they see any light at the end of the corona tunnel? Freek, who on the Wednesday morning of the interview hopes to have just started his’24-hour symptom-free’ period, looks doubtful. “It is going to be a very deep tunnel for a little while yet.” Likewise, Rebecca can't yet see a quick exit from the crisis. “I think it is going to be another five years or so before it is completely out of our systems. And there'll be another virus waiting in the wings. The world is overpopulated. This may well be our new normal.”
Update: Freek has an update for us on the evening of Sunday September 27th. Pretty much everyone in his house has now been tested and the others are negative. “So, even with one WC, one shower, and a narrow kitchen and hallway, it is still possible to keep the spread of infection to a minimum.” He himself is still battling some after-effects of his own period of illness, and has “a little cough, something like that, now and then. So in the coming days I'll continue to be careful.”
“It feels like a time bomb, to us”
What if your house has been spared corona, and now everyone has gone back to their old way of life as they see fit? What if the housemates are now out of step? Suppose you want to be cautious about your own physical health and that of your loved ones, yet realize that the very restrictions you welcome are causing mounting mental pressure for others? “It feels like a time bomb, to us. And that is pretty scary.”
He is keen to share his story. After all, this is part and parcel of student life in 2020. But he is keen to remain anonymous (*). “Some of this affects my housemates very personally.” Five housemates in all, with whom he shares the kitchen, bathroom, toilets and other areas in the house. It's always been a close-knit household, his thumbnail sketch reveals, even though there are no social obligations. “Nothing's obligatory, anything goes. Whatever happens, happens.”
Now that 'whatever' might suddenly include an infectious virus, the atmosphere in the house has changed, he says - even though they were all very much of one mind at the start of the crisis. “In March we put our heads together right away, thought about how we should deal with this and agreed, for example, that with the exception of any partners we might have, we wouldn't invite any visitors over. We were perfectly aware that if one of us were to get it, next in line would likely be not just our household, but also our parents, grandmas and granddads.”
Visits to other people, such as family members, were initially restricted and most definitely involved distancing, he says. “I left home quite a while ago, but if you are still young and have only just moved out, this can hit you hard. Unsurprisingly, at some point it started causing friction; between some of us and the parents, who were saying, ‘Come on over, we want to be able to give you hug, like we always do’ - but also between the housemates. It got to the point where we said to each other, ‘Fine, if you want to see your parents, just go. But don't forget this is a pandemic we're dealing with here.’ Nothing about your own social contacts was a matter of course; everything was discussed first in the group.”
As the months passed and one cautious relaxation of the rules was followed by another, the restrictions as well as notions of what was possible became an increasingly grey area, the student tells us. “The responsibility for handling the situation sensibly passed to each individual. The problem is that everyone has their own take on what it is sensible to do and what not.”
A ticking time bomb, that's how his student house feels at the moment, he says. “We might have been living in each other's pockets more than usual during the lockdown, but we got along and there was no topic we couldn't discuss. Since what's allowed has been growing, we're not quite marching in step anymore.”
Enjoying a relaxing break during the summer vacation, getting back to your team sport, going back to the office, studying again on the campus - all this has provided an escape from those few square meters where for months on end you have studied, worked, lived, eaten, slept and lived, and found yourself all but climbing the walls out of loneliness. Everyone has been picking up their day-to-day lives again, little by little, the TU/e student has observed. It is allowed and actually we need it, he acknowledges, and, what's more, a lot of places are now set up so that they can be visited and used safely and in a responsible way.
But, as he says, “The contrast between different students is so great. The one has been giving up so much for seven long months, while the other seems to be behaving as if nothing were wrong.” And so, for some people the city's nightlife is beckoning again, he is noticing; parties, for instance, or Stratumseind. “Why in heaven's name would anyone go there? Catering and hospitality businesses have taken all kinds of corona measures, but once people have got a couple of drinks inside them, the boundaries soon because fuzzy.”
He understands, he says, the need for contact. Personally, he counts himself lucky with the “social boost” he gets from spending a couple of hours on the campus now and then, “for me that's enough. I get that for others in the house it brings no comfort or relief; I'm not blind to the fact that some of them are on the brink of a depression. But I'm also noticing that for me, this is becoming an increasing source of irritation. That for the sake of their mental wellbeing, others are making certain choices, are justifying this and that more often - while my own health and that of the people around me is being put at risk by their behavior. This is creating various sources of tension between people, and it plays on your mind, adds to your stress.”
Open conversations on this subject are becoming more and more difficult, he is noticing, while at the same time people are talking behind each other's backs. “It's creating an awful atmosphere. Everywhere actually, not just at home. Really, there's nothing you can do right at the moment - especially if you're a student, now that as a group we are being scrutinized. Of course, there are some apples in the barrel who truly aren't interested at all, but most news reports are tarring us all with the same brush. It's so frustrating.”
But for now it's a question of persevering and trying to be understanding of others who, perhaps, feel less at ease with the situation and therefore make different choices. “There is no right or wrong in this situation; no one is right and no one is guilty.” The only solution the student sees is a vaccine, “I've set my sights on its being available in January. I'd like to see a swift end to this situation.”
(*) The name of this student interviewee is known to the editorial team.