Academics and pandemics: A student’s perspective during the lockdown

Author: Ross Booth
Third year LLB student, University of KwaZulu-Natal

For a lot of people (including myself) the 1st of January 2020 felt like a day that couldn’t come sooner. 2019 had been an especially difficult study year with the leap from first to second year comparable to an Olympic long jump. However, what I didn’t anticipate is that 2020 would spiral into disaster, almost from the get go.

UKZN students began the year in the usual fashion – one or two introductory lectures followed by an extra two weeks of holiday as our colleagues vented their frustration at the University and NSFAS respectively. However, the SRC and relevant university officials managed to quash the unrest relatively early on and lectures slowly began to commence accordingly. In conversation with a classmate shortly thereafter, I recall uttering the phrase “the worst is over” regarding the likelihood that the strikes would continue. As is always the case, good old Murphy was eavesdropping around a corner, holding his satchel of bad luck – preparing the unthinkable. And like clockwork, a virus initially described as a strong case of the sniffles managed to globetrot its way from Wuhan to sunny Durban – taking a few pit stops on the way. With that, the university was once again closed and lectures ground to a halt.

At first my fellow students and I were a little less than upset to learn that we would be given 21 days to get ahead with work and take a productive break from the daily grind. However, the severity of the situation manifested itself into what we now acknowledge to be one of the darkest moments of the 21st century.

And so here we are, 6 months after COVID-19 was originally detected. The global economy has shut down, tens of millions of people have filed for unemployment worldwide and the word of the day is “uncertain”. What I’d give to go back to a time where I could buy milk without a mask fogging up my glasses. But, with a roof over my head, running water and a fully stocked fridge, the issue of misty specs pales in comparison to what the bulk of South Africans are experiencing right now. So often we take for granted the luxuries millions of people go without, and this pandemic has only highlighted what we have known for decades. That being said, while I am certainly privileged to find myself in a position of safety and security, the virus and subsequent lockdown have certainly impacted my life as a student

Today, I got up at half past twelve in the afternoon (a joke my parents found amusing). Sleeping in late is not something I have developed as a consequence of having nothing to do, but rather as a result of how time seems non-existent in the lockdown. Because I have nowhere to go all day, I can work at what would generally be considered ungodly hours and get twice as much work done. I have always found studying at night a lot easier as there are fewer distractions, so in this regard the lockdown has actually been a benefit to my work ethic. However, not all of my fellow students share similar experiences and the following is a quote I received from a classmate:

“The lockdown has negatively affected my work ethic, it has made it non-existent. It has also made me despondent to any form of work.”

It seems that for a vast portion of students, the lockdown has been nothing more than a demoralising ordeal and I lament with them in the knowledge that we would currently be nearing the end of our semester syllabus had the virus never touched our country.

This virus also comes at an especially stressful time for a lot of law students in particular. Most third and fourth year LLB students have no doubt already begun the process of applying for articles of clerkship and would probably have received concrete feedback by this stage if the lockdown hadn’t occurred. Students who have already secured articles are in no way exempt from the stress that has encumbered those without. Those who have signed their two year contracts are uncertain as to whether they may be expected to start their periods as candidate attorneys later or whether the companies they have signed on with will even be in a position to accommodate them. A classmate who has already obtained her two year contract provided me with the following quote:

“The lockdown has definitely increased my anxiety. I am concerned about finishing my degree on time and worried about my future.”

It is evident that uncertainty is the biggest factor eating away at students. It is also impossible for anyone to predict what might happen in the near future and as a consequence thereof we are stuck in a form of limbo from which there seems no escape.

The “new normal” which implies an emphasis of growing accustomed to online learning and interactions has been somewhat of a change. While the academic staff of UKZN have done their very best to keep us abreast with module content, the human aspect of understanding of something through oral communication has not gone anywhere. To supplement this requirement, zoom calls have made it possible to communicate directly from the comfort of one’s home. However, lecture hall interactions will never fully be replaced as I for one can attest to learning a lot through the questions asked by other students I never would have otherwise considered. As I write this, the university has just sent out an email providing data bundles to students without network access. UKZN has had an immensely difficult year and as a student I am proud to attend a university that cares so deeply about the future of its students. With regards to online learning and the change over from physical lectures, a classmate provided me with the following quote:

“My experience with online learning has helped me realise the benefits of contact learning. The situation is not ideal however I do believe the University has made reasonable provisions in light of its current financial situation.”

In summation, to all my fellow students reading this, it is important to remember that across the board we are all in the same boat and it is up to us to plug the hole in the hull. I hope that collectively, we will not allow the situation to make us despondent or discouraged but rather, that we will emerge from this as stronger students.

And if you have made it to the end I want to thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and frustrations. I hope God will watch over us as a nation and that through determination and unity we will come out the other side as unscathed as possible.

Stay safe.

About the Author

Ross Booth is a third year LLB student at UKZN studying towards currently seeking articles of clerkship for the year of 2022 and hopes to pursue a career in Corporate and Finance Law. He is a member of the UKZN Moot Club, Golden Key Honours Society and represents his class in several academic modules. Outside university, he enjoys athletics and is currently training towards running the Two Oceans in 2021. His interests include foreign affairs, politics and cinema. He is also a huge dog lover with a soft spot for German Shepherds.

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