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In the frenzy surrounding the recent rise in coronavirus cases on Harvard’s campus, some have called on the University to commit to not sending its undergraduates home, or at least to not do so without revealing in advance what would prompt that move. At first glance, this request seems both sensible and justified: Eviction would be painful, and it seems reasonable to try to limit its likelihood and blunt its impact if it becomes unavoidable.
However, this policy change would be much more dangerous than its advocates imagine, and Harvard should not commit to anything of the sort.
To start, it is worth acknowledging an obvious fact: The discomfort of being sent home from college is not remotely close in moral importance to the loss of a life. If we could be sure that the discomfort of 7000-odd students’ eviction would prevent even one death, only an utterly immoral administrator would stand by and condemn that student, faculty member, employee, or family member to death.
Of course, knowledge like that is impossible in a situation like this one. During a pandemic, we will never be able to operate with anything more than likelihoods. However, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to assume that this moral truth would hold even if a potential death were not absolutely guaranteed; if we could be, say, 90 percent certain that a member of our community would die if we were to remain on campus, most would likely agree that eviction is the right course of action.
Unfortunately, such a near-guarantee of death, or at least of extreme suffering, is quite possible in our situation. Even with extensive vaccination, breakthrough infections are possible, and severe cases, though rare, can also occur. Moreover, the Harvard bubble is porous. Many members of the faculty and staff — who have far less agency in choosing to be on campus than students do — go home at the end of each day to young children without a shot at vaccination in the near future. Harvard undergraduates frequent countless neighborhood businesses without vaccine mandates for their workers. Thus, unvaccinated people are likely to be hit by the shockwave of an outbreak on campus. With enough infections, at least one severe infection would be likely, and in such a case, evicting students from campus would be morally obligatory.
However, the one constant throughout this pandemic has been its unpredictability. Virtually none of its sudden turns, from its original spread across the globe to the surge we see today, was predicted months, or even weeks, in advance. This is the case because, despite the vast predictive repertoire of the world’s scientists, we are still far from being able to forecast the viral developments and behavioral trends that determine the course of Covid-19.
As a result, we can confidently say much less in advance than we think we can about what conditions on campus would be too risky to tolerate. Even though we believe we know what those conditions are, that knowledge hinges on an understanding of the virus and others’ pandemic behavior which we simply don’t have. Even if we did, an unpredictable future can easily overturn any handle on the pandemic’s trajectory.
And if Harvard publicly releases a set of criteria that would prompt our eviction, it risks being unable to handle that future. If new facts about the pandemic make it clear that a seemingly innocuous situation is actually unbearably dangerous, then the public existence of such a guideline would likely lead to life-threatening vacillation among administrators, who cannot help but be guided by public perception, irate students, and the inertia of their own previous positions.
The risk, then, of releasing such criteria is immense: When faced with exponential spread, any delay is almost incomprehensibly severe. And the thing being risked — the death or incapacitation of someone who may have had no choice in being here — is clearly grave. In comparison, the potential harm of not releasing such criteria — the whiplash of being suddenly sent home — seems utterly unimportant.
When its benefits and drawbacks are compared, it becomes clear that Harvard should not put out a set of conditions that would lead it to send us home. If worse comes to worst and students are sent home again, knowing this in advance would certainly reduce the pain students would feel. But drawing an ill-conceived line in the sand would ultimately risk actual lives in what would be a truly misguided bargain.
Chinmay Deshpande ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Winthrop House.
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