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Cambridge under COVID:
One Year of the Crisis

 

by Christopher Schaefer

When reports about a SARS-like virus began to emerge from Wuhan, China in December 2019, the news barely registered with Cambridge students. Of course, it was a major event deserving of coverage. But it was out there, remote, extraneous somehow. There seemed no reason to connect the news about the virus with our own lives. In the past two decades, outbreaks of SARS and MERS, to say nothing of more deadly but less transmissible viruses like Ebola, had all been contained. Despite some regional transmission, none of them had gone global. None of them had arrived in the United Kingdom. None of them had put our friends or family at risk.  

 

Within a few weeks of the emergence of these pneumonia-like symptoms in Wuhan, the pathogen was identified. On 9 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was a “novel coronavirus.” In other words, the mysterious respiratory ailments were caused by an RNA virus that had never previously been identified. The “novel” qualifier didn’t just mean that it was new to scientists; it also meant that no one in the world had immunity to it. In hindsight, that fact looms large. But in that moment, the news still seemed distant—unfortunate, scary perhaps, but not personally relevant.  

 

Of course, this was not universally the case. Among the over 10,000 students from 140 foreign countries who study at the University of Cambridge, Chinese students represent by far the largest contingent with 17% of non-UK students. (For comparison’s sake, the United States has the second largest foreign student population at Cambridge with 9.4%.) In addition to the large number of Chinese students at Cambridge, there are also partnerships with Chinese universities in Nanjing and Beijing, and academic staff in a number of fields conduct joint research projects with Chinese colleagues.

 

Intriguingly, Cambridge also features prominently in the development of Chinese poetry. The Chinese romantic poet Xu Zhimo moved to Cambridge in 1921 after studying at Clark University in Massachusetts and Columbia University in New York. Dissatisfied with his experience in the United States, he found refuge in Cambridge, where he became enthralled by the English Romantics like Keats and Shelley. Xu later memorialised his stay in Cambridge in his poem “On Leaving Cambridge.” The poem, framed as a farewell to Cambridge, evokes a peaceful setting along the River Cam: the elms and willows, the sky, the duckweed and the punts. The poetic voice knows that he must leave but is reluctant all the same. Inevitably, he leaves Cambridge, but quietly - “very quietly… just as quietly” as he had come. Cambridge marked him, and yet a meditative silence was all that the city could muster for him at the moment of his departure: “Peace is my farewell music / Even crickets are silent for me, / Cambridge this evening is silent.” (悄悄是別離的笙簫 / 夏蟲也為我沉默 / 沉默是今晚的康橋).

 

“On Leaving Cambridge” is canonical in China. Every school child learns it. For Chinese academics and intellectuals, in particular, the poem represents a shared feeling of affection for Cambridge. Because of this connection, Chinese tourist groups almost inevitably include Cambridge on their visits to the United Kingdom. Collections of Xu Zhimo’s poetry sell so well in Cambridge that bilingual and Chinese-only editions are placed near the entrance of businesses as diverse as the trinket store on King’s Parade and the Cambridge University Press bookstore. While itineraries vary, Chinese tourists can inevitably be found walking down King’s Parade, through King’s College, and across the River Cam to a memorial garden dedicated to Xu in the King’s College backs.

 

At some point in the first few weeks of 2020, this flood of Chinese tourists slowed to a trickle. Around the same time, a small memorial to the Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, complete with photos, a printed-out Wikipedia entry, and flowers, went up on the sidewalk in front of King’s College. The whistle-blower from Wuhan had been unjustly reprimanded for “rumour-mongering” in those early days of the pandemic for trying to raise awareness about COVID-19. (In March 2020, a Chinese enquiry exonerated him, and his family received an apology from the state.)

 

There were reminders of Cambridge’s connection to China, not on the periphery, but in the very centre of the city. And yet the coronavirus outbreak still felt far away.

 

 

COVID Comes to Cambridge

In the weeks that followed, the pandemic moved closer. The first COVID-19 cases were detected in the United Kingdom on 31 January 2020. Throughout February, cases increased almost everywhere. The north of Italy was particularly hard hit. Individual Italian cities went into lockdown, and police mobilised to enforce restrictions. The news in those weeks was filled with stories of outbreaks—on cruise ships, from sporting events, choir practices, church services.

 

Estella Wang, an MPhil student in European, Latin American Comparative Literatures and Cultures, who did her undergraduate degree in Wuhan, has vivid memories of those early weeks of 2020 in Cambridge. “I was so worried about friends and professors in Wuhan, I asked them to be careful. I was also very concerned about my family, because it was almost Chinese New Year. I urged them to stay at home and wear masks when they had to go out.” As the outbreak grew closer, Estella herself occasionally wore a mask in Cambridge. “Back then in the UK, I felt that only Chinese students were worrying about the situation.” Zhu Miao, a PhD student in Molecular Engineering, concurs. “At that time, almost all east Asian people were aware of the seriousness of COVID-19. We started to stockpile gloves, disinfectants and masks already. However, most British people seemed to care little.”

 

Students from East Asia also noticed a marked shift in how they were treated in public. Estella was disturbed by the news she heard about both those wearing masks in public and about Chinese students: “People would assume the ones wearing masks are those who had COVID, and some people wearing masks got attacked, which scared me.” Miao was deeply concerned after one of his friends was verbally abused while leaving a bar on Regent Street in the centre of Cambridge. There were even reports of Chinese students being hit in the streets in Cambridge. As a result of these incidents, Miao decided to stand for BAME Officer at St Edmund’s College in early February. During hustings, he recounted the experience of his friend, linking the racist incidents that Chinese students at Cambridge were facing with other anti-racist struggles. As part of his platform, he proposed events to raise awareness about hate crimes.

 

The second week of March 2020 was a turning point in Western Europe. First, the Lombardy region of Italy went into regional lockdown and then a full national lockdown just days later. Spain, Switzerland, and France quickly followed. Like Sweden, the United Kingdom resisted following these countries’ lead. Instead, Public Health England (PHE) started a campaign to encourage sustained hand-washing and immediate self-isolation in the case of symptoms. They also discouraged non-essential travel and warned vulnerable individuals to stay at home. Boris Johnson’s libertarian instincts, as well as his understanding of the British national character, militated against a closure of the economy for public health reasons. Rumours spread that the United Kingdom was pursuing a “herd immunity” approach.

 

Later that week, on 10 March, COVID-19 came to Cambridge officially. PHE reported that the first individual in Cambridgeshire tested positive. In the United States the next day, the NBA cancelled its season, and President Trump announced a 30-day travel ban on flights from Europe, excluding the United Kingdom and Ireland. The same day, the World Health Organization officially acknowledged the gravity of the situation by declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. Reality started to sink in.

 

In Cambridge, planning went into high gear. Following government guidelines, St Edmund’s College prepared contingency plans for the isolation of students who experienced symptoms or arrived from countries with major outbreaks. For this purpose, they purchased a large number of microwaves and electric kettles. As a Singaporean student pointed out at the time, this approach neglected to consider how COVID-19 spread. If a student had been infected with COVID-19, then others likely would have as well.

 

A major impediment to university decision-making regarding the pandemic very quickly became apparent: its collegiate structure. The University of Cambridge is a federation of 31 colleges, each with a separate legal existence as a chartered educational charity. In addition, there are more than one hundred faculties and departments. As a result, there are no clear lines of authority in the university at large. Its top decision-making body is a committee called the Gold Team, with other important committees like the University Council, the Heads of House Committee, the Bursars Committee, and the Senior Tutors Committee. But even the Gold Team can only provide guidelines - suggestions that colleges are strongly encouraged to follow. A bewildering set of other committees at the university, department, faculty, and college levels weaves the rest of the university together. Numbering into the thousands in total, their remits often overlap. Power is diffuse. And authority is hard to come by.

 

In early March 2020, as the pandemic drew nearer, the colleges did manage to arrive at a consensus position that students could remain in Cambridge. However, it lasted only a few days. The consensus position clashed with the considered professional opinion of Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Master of Trinity College and former Chief Medical Officer for England. On 13 March, she decided to break ranks with the other colleges. All Trinity students received an email telling them to return home. Queen’s College quickly followed. Cambridge was thrown into a tumult. Anxiety spread. The question on every student’s lips was: “When will my college ask me to return home as well?”

 

At St Edmund’s College, after a weekend that seemed an eternity, senior staff called an emergency meeting to speak to students. In the early evening of Monday 16 March, the Master, the Vice Master, and the Bursar spoke from the chapel steps to a group of several dozen students, with dozens more watching the livestream on Facebook. They conveyed a slightly different message from the one heard at other colleges. The Master explained, “I am staying here. This is my home.” She encouraged each student to make the decision that was right for them, “Go where you feel safest.”

 

When the dust had settled, almost all Cambridge students returned home. At St Edmund’s, a mature, largely international college, many students could not return home or had no other home besides college accommodation. As a result, around 180 students remained on site, more than at any other Cambridge college. Almost every day in that third week in March, PHE emitted new announcements with further COVID-19 restrictions or guidelines. The turning point, though, occurred when modelling done by an Imperial College London team led by Neil Ferguson predicted catastrophic results in the United Kingdom without drastic action. Terrified by the model’s predictions, the Prime Minister decided to follow in the footsteps of other Western European countries. On 23 March, Boris Johnson declared a national lockdown.

 

 

Cambridge under Lockdown

 

Cambridge was silent. As Xu’s poem celebrates, Cambridge has always been a locus amoenus, a peaceful refuge for learning. But this silence was different. This peaceful calm wasn’t just found along the River Cam; it pervaded the entire city. Streets were empty. Commerce virtually disappeared. The usually bustling centre was eerily quiet. The only exceptions were the grocery stores: Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Tesco. Plexiglass went up. Socially distanced queues were marked out with large stickers on the floor at entrances and at tills. 

 

Cut off from normal human interaction, our social lives moved online. We discovered Zoom, and then “Zoom-bombing.” Other Zoom mishaps followed. We found entertainment in watching viral videos of Italian mayors berating their residents for breaking lockdown rules. The younger generation turned to TikTok. We binge-watched Tiger King on Netflix. There was a contagion of essays about Camus’s The Plague, with a lesser strain involving Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Articles about COVID-19 studies and essays on past pandemics proliferated. The 1918 outbreak of the Spanish Flu featured prominently. Ominously, historians reminded readers that the second wave of that pandemic, in the winter, was most fatal.

 

It was difficult not to become obsessed by the mind-boggling procession of events passing across our screens. The price of US Treasuries swung wildly. Normal market functioning seemed to be in question. With no furlough scheme, American unemployment claims reached astounding highs. One week, 3.3 million, 6.6 million the next. And it continued for months. Millions and millions of new unemployment claims, week after week. In India, a rapid shutdown left day labourers far from home; millions decided to walk the hundreds of kilometres back to their hometowns in the largest exodus since Partition. On the other side of the spectrum, New Zealand adopted a rigorous approach early on, jeopardising its crucial tourism industry by demanding two-week isolations from all new arrivals - an approach which now looks remarkably far-sighted. New vocabulary appeared: “super spreaders”, “social distancing”, “flattening the curve”, acronyms like SAGE and COBRA. The difficulty in obtaining ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) dominated the news. Nightingale Hospitals went up, never to be fully utilised. We clapped for the NHS.

 

Many colleges at Cambridge had fewer than ten students still living in College. With so many students on site, the adjustment to lockdown at St Edmund’s was very different. Naturally, the adjustment to lockdown was very different. The first major challenge in the early days of lockdown was how to comply with new rules about households. After some initial uncertainty about how national guidance would apply to student accommodation, it was decided that anyone sharing a kitchen and a bathroom would comprise a “household.” With a majority of accommodation built in the previous two decades, St Edmund’s was unusually well-prepared for this definition. There was, however, one exception. The oldest building at St Edmund’s, the Norfolk building, with its labyrinthine corridors and small, sparsely located kitchens, was not particularly well-designed for any kind of households or self-isolation. In one corner of the building, there were over 20 students using the same kitchen. And that kitchen was small. Household isolation in the case of exposure to COVID-19 would have been impractical to say the very least.

 

In the latter half of March, St Edmund’s senior staff began working out of the Benet House Meeting Room, on the same floor just around the corner from the SCR. They centralised decision-making power in their daily meetings and created streamlined administrative structures for the emergency. They met regularly with newly formed teams. Students were also incorporated in the deliberations. The remaining members of the Combination Room (CR) Executive Committee were included in meetings every few days. A single email address for students to raise any question related to the pandemic was created and Tutorial staff, including a staff member hired only three weeks earlier, was tasked with triage of all emails. Using results of a student survey as well as room checks, a database of occupied and empty rooms was established. With printouts of colour-coded maps and spreadsheets spread across the Benet House Meeting Room tables, senior staff carefully planned a series of moves out of the Norfolk building, with a goal of creating households of four to five students equally distributed across all the newer accommodation buildings. Tutorial communicated the set of moves to each student, informing CR Welfare Officer Linea Vogel about each one. The CR then arranged group chats for each newly formed household, encouraging students to help their new hallmates in the move and to welcome them more generally. It was no Dunkirk, but the entire operation was pulled off with very few snags, breaking stereotypes about slow and inefficient administration in Cambridge.

 

Predictably, Easter term was moved online. After intense lobbying by the Cambridge Students’ Union (SU), the university-wide body in charge of advocating for student concerns, the university decided to implement a “safety net” for exams. Each faculty and department chose a different approach; in some cases, exams were cancelled altogether. With less academic pressure and unusually pleasant weather, students at St Edmund’s spent a great deal of those months in the orchard and the field. Weights had been moved outside in the first week of the pandemic. Socially distanced Tabata and yoga occurred in the orchard. As lockdown restrictions were loosened, small groups of students began to play socially distant sports like cricket and ultimate frisbee. While harried work continued behind the scenes, for many students at St Edmund’s this unprecedented break from normal academic life - and in such wonderful weather - proved a pleasant change of pace and a refuge from the tumult outside the Cambridge bubble.

 

As a university town largely absent its students, the virus had few potential vectors over the course of the first lockdown. As a result, Cambridge itself never had the kind of COVID-19 outbreak experienced by larger cities like London and Manchester. When pubs opened back up on 4 July, there had only been 319 cases in all of Cambridge. That number changed little over the summer.

 

The autumn, however, was another story.

 

 

Returning to Cambridge

 

If the challenge in March was how to handle the arrival of COVID to Cambridge, the challenge in September and October was how to manage the return of so many students under COVID. For financial reasons, not bringing students back to Cambridge was never seriously considered. Several colleges depend on rental income for a large proportion of their operating budget. The return of students posed a series of epidemiological and pedagogical issues.

 

In mid-May, a leaked email detailed early plans for lectures to be all online, making the national and the international press. In response, the Heads of House published a joint statement reminding everyone that in the Cambridge system, lectures did not play the major role they did in other universities. Instead there would be “blended learning” - practicals and supervisions would likely happen in person, but it depended largely on the faculty and department. Slightly larger seminars might also be online, but that would be seen later. The University insisted that some things would occur in person and so students did need to return to Cambridge.

 

Offer-holders confronted a number of difficulties over the summer. In August, A-level results were released to great consternation. An algorithm intended to prevent grade inflation actually resulted in a penalisation of bright students from schools that had traditionally done poorly or who had taken courses with few other students. In response to the outcry, the United Kingdom decided to reverse course and defaulted to notes from teachers. This decision had the effect of increasing the number of offer-holders coming to university. With so much of the world under lockdown, many offer-holders found it difficult to get paperwork processed in a timely fashion. Without final transcripts, passports, or visas, many students struggled to meet the conditions of their offer in a timely fashion. A few days after the UK’s U-turn on A-levels, just as the weekend was beginning, Cambridge’s Graduate Admissions Office (GAO) muddied the waters further. They sent out a mass email mistakenly informing hundreds of offer-holders that they had been rejected. Chats and groups on social media instantly lit up. By early the next week, the confusion had been resolved, but not before sending blood pressure skyrocketing.

 

In order to deal with the financial uncertainty that the pandemic had caused, St Edmund’s College took the decision to rent out a large portion of its accommodation to other colleges. In addition to blocks within the recently constructed Mount Pleasant Halls, which were rented out to Lucy Cavendish and Darwin on long-term contracts that pre-dated COVID-19, the College also negotiated a deal to rent the Brian Heap Building to Trinity College for a generous price and half of the Richard Laws Building to Murray Edwards. For its own students, the College engaged in much-needed renovations in the Norfolk and Richard Laws Buildings. By the end of the summer, the Norfolk building had several new kitchens and dining areas, as well as locked doors marking newly constructed households. A future relocation of dozens of students out of Norfolk would no longer be necessary.

 

In order to comply with the United Kingdom’s two-week quarantine rule, St Edmund’s College decided to let students move to Cambridge significantly earlier than in previous years. This effectively made Freshers’ Week a Freshers’ Month over the entirety of September. The St Edmund’s CR established a month-long set of events – many online, but also a Help Desk outside to answer questions and socially distanced tours of the College, to help students get settled. The CR arranged deliveries and other support for students, most of whom were arriving for the first time and knew no one else.

 

Also in September, the University made the surprise announcement that there would be an asymptomatic testing scheme for students living in college. Led by Cambridge academics Patrick Maxwell, Nicholas Matheson, and Ben Warne, the asymptomatic testing programme was one of the very few unambiguously good events to occur during the past year. In only a few weeks, they implemented the programme across the entirety of collegiate Cambridge, compensating in part for the failures of the national test-and-trace scheme. The system was viable largely because testing was done in groups. Students within a testing pool, usually based on household, each contributed one swab to a vial which was then analysed as a unit. In the case of a positive test, everyone in the pool went into isolation and each student received an individual test. The consent agreements also allowed for the data to be collected and used for further analysis and research, which helped Cambridge scientists better understand COVID-19.

 

 

The Normality of Lockdown

In October, it became clear that COVID-19 would follow the model of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Winter’s approach provided fertile conditions for the spread of the coronavirus. Case numbers began a rapid increase. Preserved from the worst in the early months of the pandemic, Cambridge was now full of students. Even with masks and social distancing rules in place, COVID-19 case numbers still shot up well beyond anything Cambridge had seen previously. The rest of the United Kingdom saw similar rises. 

 

On 5 November, the second lockdown went into effect in England. Originally designed to flatten the curve and allow for a reopening in time for the Christmas holidays, the end of lockdown in early December only led to another rapid rise in case numbers. It was soon announced that a new variant of COVID had emerged in the United Kingdom, which was much more transmissible. It quickly supplanted the earlier, less transmissible variants. Research showing that it was no more deadly than the original variant proved little relief. Other countries closed their borders. At the same time, the United Kingdom approved its first COVID-19 vaccine, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech. The vaccine rollout began in earnest. 

 

Six days after the Brexit transition period ended, on 6 January 2021, England entered its third lockdown. Once again, Cambridge was silent. Cambridge students who had left for the holidays were told not to return. The Tutorial team sorted through requests for students to return, and rent for Lent term was not charged for those not returning. Cambridge returned to lockdown mode yet again. This time, at least at St Edmund’s, the whole process was painless. No students had to be moved. Everyone knew their responsibilities. Communication was clear. All the contingency planning and preparation over the preceding months had turned lockdown into just another bureaucratic procedure. To a remarkable extent, COVID-19 had become normal.

 

On 18 January, Lent term began at the University of Cambridge. With precious few exceptions, everything was online. The majority of students were not even in Cambridge. The next week, the official United Kingdom death toll for COVID-19 passed the grim threshold of 100,000. At the same time, vaccination numbers continued to climb, and case numbers continued to decrease. As the weather began to improve, social activities moved outdoors, which did not hurt. The decision to delay the second jab of vaccines in order to maximise the number of people with at least one jab seems for the moment to have been a wise one. 

 

Some elderly and otherwise vulnerable staff and students at Cambridge have received the vaccination, but most students will have to wait many months. It is only a matter of time now. New variants will inevitably arise. Given the extremely uneven vaccine rollout globally,  travel restrictions will be with us for some time to come. And even once COVID-19 becomes normal in an epidemiological and bureaucratic sense, the economic and psychological fallout will continue for years to come. 

 

The pandemic is not over, but the worst now seems behind us.

 

Education and work will be changed forever. Some things simply function better online. In other cases, though, we have discovered just how much we need and desire the physical presence of other people. There is great value to be derived from living and learning together, especially in as peaceful a place as Cambridge. The financial cost of sustaining a collegiate system, particularly for the less-endowed colleges, though, remains an open question. The importance of doing so, however, has never been so self-evident.

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Stone Carving of the first and last lines of Xu Zhimo’s
poem placed beside King’s College Bridge, Cambridge in 2008 (Source: Lin, 2017)

St Edmund’s College senior staff addressing students on 16 March 2020 (Source: Author)

St Edmund’s College staff posting COVID-19 social
distancing signage before Michaelmas Term 2020
(Source: Author)

Student volunteer Elsie Linley, at the Freshers’ Week Help Desk at the St Edmund’s College Chapel steps, September 2020 (Source: Author)

St Edmund’s College fields during lockdown (Source: Haoyu Xing)