Jay Goldstuck saw an opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Relieved of her RA duties and prevented from traveling home to South Africa, she spent her spring break doing more than scrolling through old photos or mimicking horses on TikTok. Instead, she assembled a group of volunteers to go grocery shopping for immunocompromised students.
“These are people who need help,” she said. “Yes, social distancing, but we also have a form of solidarity.”
Goldstuck’s efforts are part of a larger group of about 20 USC students helping out in this time of acute need -- from grocery shopping to organizing food drives and offering vacant rooms for people who need housing.
But some experts note the serious risks these activities may pose.
“If you’re going to be out, you better damn well have a good reason,” said Patrick Schlivert, a Professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa. “You have to be extremely careful.”
Students have risen to the occasion at this generation-defining moment, organizing charity movements and online petitions. Some have even caught national headlines for their on-the-ground work by distributing groceries and other supplies to those in need across New York City. But during a time where the best advice for “flattening the curve” is staying at home and limiting contact with others, what is the risk behind a good intention?
“You don’t know who’s positive and you don’t know where people’s hands have been,” Schlivert said. “I’m not convinced it’s the greatest idea in the world.”
Recent “stay-at-home” orders across California make clear that hygiene and isolation are touted as the most effective means to stop the virus. As a result, performing unregulated charity work on the ground could pose a severe risk when the vast number of unidentified COVID-19 cases carry mild symptoms and the virus can last on some surfaces for up to three days. The fact that America’s testing capabilities trail behind most other nations doesn’t help, either.
Schlivert recognizes, however, the compulsion to help at a time when institutions are scrambling to paste together relief plans.
“Somebody has to make sure that the elderly and immunocompromised students get their things,” he said. “But that by and large should be done through the university’s student health service and government organizations.”
Student housing during the pandemic is a particular issue. Within a single week, universities cleared out residence halls to stem the coronavirus spread, leaving many students with limited options. On Friday, USC asked more students to vacate their on-campus housing, while allowing some to stay if they had a justifiable reason.
A similar measure was taken at Pomona College, where a group of students say that their petitions to remain on campus were denied, forcing them to scrounge for alternative housing options.
“I know Ivies are doing the same thing, and there are other places that are doing things that I perceive to be wrong, but I think there’s a better way to handle it,” said Damien Lin, a junior majoring in Economics at Pomona.
Lin refuses to return home to Taiwan and risk the health of his 90-year-old grandmother with whom he lives. While he says he has some options to seek housing, he has been critical of the school for what appears to be leaving out students to dry.
At USC, an ad-hoc charity coalition led by junior screenwriting major Veronica Marks - the same that Goldstuck is a part of - aims to connect these students with open apartment spaces. Through a much-shared mutual aid spreadsheet, USC students can post their open rooms for others to take up during the pandemic.
Some were already contacted about open spaces. Lucy Allen, a junior cinema and media studies major who went home to Washington D.C. during the pandemic, received messages from both USC and Claremont students.
“My room is gonna be vacant and it’s a big room,” Allen said. “It sort of seemed like it would be going to waste given that a lot of people are being forced to move out of their housing.”
Students working on the ground insist that they take the utmost precaution to ensure their own safety and that of others. Natalie Lee, a senior studying music industry who offered up her apartment space, established ground rules for anyone staying in her room: leaving the room is forbidden, and keeping dishes separate is a must. Meanwhile, students who volunteer for Goldstuck’s grocery program must wear gloves and wash their hands frequently.
Yet none of these students are monitored under a centralized entity, nor are their jobs at stake if they neglect to wash their hands or forget to sanitize a grocery bag. At a time of unprecedented institutional disorganization and lack of resources, the substitute for a mechanized response is the good intentions of people acting independently.
This begs the question: can you help more people by staying home, or doing your part as a healthy young person? The answer isn’t entirely clear.
“What you describe is a true ethical dilemma in which different approaches to helping others conflict and are mutually exclusive,” wrote Felicia Cohn, an associate adjunct professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine, in an email. “Each student will have to weigh the risks and benefits and make a choice.”
“With either choice, there remains a responsibility to limit the downsides of that choice as much as possible,” she wrote.
Either option, however, doesn’t eliminate the issue of students who need housing or are immunocompromised. What, then, can be done by the average citizen? On one end, there are online campaigns and charities. But for those wishing to take actions into their own hands, one must also ensure those hands are clean.
“The question is when they go out, are they picking [coronavirus] up in their nose and throat? They might, but they don’t know because they can’t get a test,” Schlievert said. “The risk is you kill somebody.”
Common preventative measures are the best practice: wash your hands, practice social distancing, and wear a mask and gloves if you’re shopping for others. Another piece of advice is to call your university or a nearby medical facility to ask whether your actions are likely to put the public health at risk.
Ultimately, these pressing times indicate that there are members of this generation who are willing to heed a call to action. While this must be done with extreme caution - perhaps more than most think they are applying - the nobility of these efforts cannot be denied.
“One of the few good things that have come out of this crisis is that students from different schools are trying to help each other,” Lin said.