Last Saturday UoN’s Callaghan Campus had their first taste of freedom in a fortnight. Yak’s Callum Pull Zoomed in with four students from IH to talk about their 13-day isolation.
On the morning of Saturday, August 21, International House residents had their first taste of freedom since August 7, when they were ordered into immediate isolation.
It came after the announcement of two student residents testing positive for COVID-19. They were the first recorded cases of the virus on the University campus and marked the first-time entire student blocks were forced to isolate.
The isolation period, slated to run to August 14, was later extended until midnight Friday.
Tom, Eva, Maddie* and Sam* live in International House and are part of this group isolation.
They tell me the announcement of their immediate isolation was startling and upsetting. It was the same day the Hunter had been forced into a ‘snap’ lockdown at 5pm, and by 8pm International House was quarantined.
“We all got the email at the same time. People were really shocked” Sam explained “there was a lot of crying and a lot of swearing.”
THE STIGMA ASSOCIATED WITH COVID
Last week, Yak brought you the story of Shannon Dockerty, a student resident at International House who unknowingly spread COVID in Tamworth before the Hunter’s lockdown began. She received threatening texts and messages on social media as backlash for returning a positive result in Tamworth.
I wanted to know how students on campus are being treated by their peers. The four students interviewed told me they did feel stigmatised since the cases appeared in their college. They recalled when they were marched to ICT to get tested last week, every other college avoided them to a “ridiculous extent.”
The students appealed for understanding from the community.
“They would not come within a ten-foot stick.” Sam continued, “We walked in behind [South Tower College] and they were like ‘Oh my God it’s the COVID College.’”
“They herded us like sheep to the testing clinic,” Eva said.
I asked Tom, Eva, Maddie and Sam if they felt there was someone to blame for the outbreak that led to their isolation. They pointed to the Sydneysiders who attended a party at Blacksmiths’ Beach. I asked if the state government was to blame, and while acknowledging there was an argument saying the NSW Government should’ve locked down sooner, that no one could’ve known how bad it would get, and that people need to obey health orders so that the health orders can work.
SUPPORT GIVEN TO STUDENTS SUFFICIENT
The students felt overall the support they had received from the University, UNSA and Student Living was positive, noting gratefully the food drops made by community group OzHarvest, student club UniChurch and the student association, UNSA.
“We definitely won’t be running out of pasta,” joked Tom.
When asked about where support was falling short, some residents felt they couldn’t access necessities such as bin bags and other household items easily forgotten by donors.
Some residents felt that the Item Request Forms by UNSA, which are given to each household, were there to make residents feel like they were being helped but had very little impact on what was being delivered.
Sam was quick to point out, however, that dietary requirements and essential hygiene products had been delivered to a friend of hers by UNSA when requested.
“We had a girl who asked for Vegan food and Tampons, and she got a full bag of Vegan stuff, like real expensive stuff and sanitary products which was really great.”
The group of students said Student Living seemed to be caught off-guard by the sudden isolation announcement, and that their ever-changing advice was due to an inconsistent back and forth with NSW Health.
Tom recalled when the COVID case on campus was first found, and word got out, there was a significant communication delay between rumours, panic and confirmation.
“It sent panic straight away – it wasn’t confirmed, it wasn’t false but people just packed up and left,” he said.
The residents told Yak that the presence of law enforcement around their building was daunting, and that some members of the security team patrolling the area were rude and overreacting to the situation.
“One of the girls was [telling me] there was a fire alarm that went off, and she was saying the security was so rude and he was yelling ‘Get away’ and ‘Get Back!’ yelling at them.” Eva told is.
“I rang up just to ask some questions,” recalled Maddie, “And they started yelling at me. Like they were so mean.”
“Some of the security team are really lovely,” Sam recalled, “When I was told I can’t exercise outside one of them dropped off an exercise routine that I could do in my [house].”
RENT AND FINANCIAL STRAIN
When asked about their financial and work situation, Maddie reported she’d been let go by her workplace since the isolation was announced, but had applied and received assistance from the federal government. Tom, Eva and Sam all reported they had lost 15-20 hours per week in work, leaving them with a shortfall of between $350 and $500 per week.
Most students reported that it was quick and easy to access the federal government’s COVID disaster payment – some payments even came through the same day as the application was submitted.
The students explained they were still required to pay rent for their fortnight in isolation, and that Student Living was still requiring students to pay an exit fee and risk losing their bond if they chose to terminate their contract with Student Living.
In 2020, when the pandemic first hit, Student Living waived the termination fee and on-campus residents were allowed to terminate their contract free of charge, as well as receiving their bond back in full.
The students interviewed said the federal government’s COVID disaster payments were enough to cover rent, but for those without work to return to, would not help pay for much more than that.
The students have just one thing on their mind: chocolate and alcohol. They said they are very grateful for the food donations made by local organisations and businesses, but that they would be delighted to receive some chocolates and snacks (other than the plentiful stocks of soup and pasta) in the next delivery.
*In order to protect the students’ privacy, Yak has chosen to publish this article using aliases.
Feature Image: Cal Pull, Yak Staff Writer and Designer.