By: Yosef Lemel  | 

One Year Later — Reflections on the COVID-19 Pandemic

On the last Shabbos of February 2020, a friend of mine tried to convince me that, fairly soon, people would be isolated in the dark recesses of their homes, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives would be lost and that basic functions of society would break down due to a foreign disease known as COVID-19. I didn’t believe him at the time — this particular friend, in fairness, is prone to exaggeration — but, at this point, just over a year later, I think it’s probably best for me to admit I was wrong. 

From September to February of last year, Yeshiva University faced many challenges including a sexual abuse case, broken elevators, a failed dining experiment and controversy over the idea of an LGBTQ club. However, little did anyone realize that the worst was yet to come. 

Yeshiva University’s “world of tomorrow” changed on March 3, 2020, at 2:27 p.m., perhaps forever. At the time, no one knew how much society would be altered, but there was an ominous air in the atmosphere. After hearing that SAR — a local Jewish high school — shut down that morning, students learned, from the infamous university communication sent at 2:27 p.m., that the second patient with of COVID-19 in New York had a son at Yeshiva. 

I recall that day being filled with much wonder, with some students even going as far as suggesting that the university would close up shop. After it was confirmed that a student had COVID-19, reporters flocked to Yeshiva aiming to be the first ones to get the story. I remember the excitement of the day. We, a small Jewish university, seemed to be at the epicenter of an incident that would alter the course of human events. 

Indeed, it has been a year of suffering and crisis; I have often heard COVID-19 being referred to as “a protracted 9/11 for this generation.” In hindsight — and I genuinely hope that term can now be accurately used — of the crisis, we must take a sobering look at the health emergency and its effects. The reflections may be obvious and self-evident, but sometimes — especially in times of skepticism and adversity — self-evident truths must be presented. 

Unfortunately, there has been a loss of trust in basic institutions. A survey conducted in October of the Yeshiva student body found that 62% of respondents believed the country is heading in the wrong direction, even while — at the time — there was a president in the Oval Office favored by most students. Only two years earlier, when the same question was asked, only 41% of Yeshiva College students, 24% of students in the Sy Syms School of Business for Men and 45% of Stern College for Women students thought similarly. In only two years, this university’s student body became precipitously more skeptical about society’s path. It must be noted that the second survey was taken after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, though before the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. 

Governmental failures — both local and federal — were probably contributing factors to the rampant skepticism displayed by students. However, I believe that the effects of decreased social interaction were more damaging to the human condition than any other factor during the past year. 

Humans are social creatures that thrive in groups. For an extended period of time, these social creatures were cooped up in their homes with no one but a small group of people to personally talk to. It is easy to see the creation of artificial social bubbles as a direct result of the pandemic and the resultant restrictions. 

Zoom interactions have functioned as poor replacements for the genuineness of proper in-person socialization. I have regularly noticed more people shouting and talking over others on Zoom compared with in-person formats. It is sometimes easier to see the person on the other end of the conversation as a bunch of pixels than as a true human being. 

When there is in-person human interaction, it is generally done with the accompaniment of masks covering the face, which — along with the health benefits — obviously has the effect of limiting human expression. A squint of the eyes must now be interpreted as a smile in lieu of an actual bright smile in its full glory. This might all seem like minor quibbling, but it would not be surprising if there was a causal relationship between society’s newfound skepticism and the limitations on socialization. 

The above statements should not, of course, be interpreted as a condonation of flouting the existing rules; on the contrary, The Commentator’s editorial board warned against such actions in October and we stand by our statements. However, the rulemakers — both in the university and the government — must be cognizant of the human element when formulating the rules. Society and human interaction must not be allowed to fully shut down again. Otherwise, I fear, this stifling of empathy will destroy the human within us. 

Last Thursday night, I heard a throng of students singing in a kumzitz out of my dorm room window. While the noise kept me up late at night and my litvish predilections are naturally opposed to the practice of a kumzitz, the display of genuine humanity awoke in me a nostalgia for the pre-COVID-19 era. Likewise, when in December, The Commentator printed its first physical issue since February 2020, it personally felt like a shift to normalcy. 

The emergence of a vaccine has brought with it renewed hope for humanity. Many states have lifted restrictions to pre-pandemic levels in response to falling rates of infection. Importantly, the economy appears to be in recovery mode. Hopefully, at this rate, as I wrote in my last editorial, I am optimistic that the university will be able to hold an in-person commencement ceremony this semester. The university administration has since sent out a form to graduating seniors asking for their input on graduation; I hope they take our ideas into account. 

An editorial I wrote in the fall presented the return to campus as a bleak experience. It was. Many, if not most, of the problems in that editorial are still ones that Yeshiva must deal with. I still believe, for example, that there is a necessity for the Office of Student Life (OSL) to be more responsive to the needs and wants of students, both virtually and in-person. This should begin with proper communication between the OSL and the student body. Unfortunately, OSL is severely understaffed — a majority of its staff left in the past year. I hope the university will be able to ameliorate some of the problems associated with that office. While not the primary focus of this editorial, I mention it in the hope that it will be addressed before a crisis point is reached that would extend beyond the COVID-19 era. 

To end this editorial on a more optimistic note, student life is generally better than it was in the fall semester, as there are more students residing on campus or in apartments in the Heights. Unfortunately, there have barely been any noticeable structural changes in the university’s attitude towards student life as suggested in my previous editorials, and classes are still mostly held virtually. However, with more students comes social interaction and, with that, comes the retainment of humanity. 

I hope the pandemic experience will cause students to reflect on the value of shared humanity. Two ideas that I’ve recently heard proposed to this end are holding a chessed day or hosting a seudas hoda’ah. Perhaps an implementation of both ideas would start a process that would emphasize a love for humanity’s value and a recognition of what we have to be thankful for, including being privileged to attend the unique institution of Yeshiva with our lives, souls and bodies intact.