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WARTEL: There are too many parallels between the U.Va. and Trump Administration's handling of COVID-19

The University administration’s COVID response also seeks to make U.Va. “great” again

As students file back into dorms, classes begin in-person and checks finally clear, University administration has made attempts to reassure everyone that they have their best interests in mind. Message after message of insisting “The safety of every member of our community remains our highest priority,” ring hollow as campuses like UNC, Northwestern and JMU have abandoned their plans for in-person instruction within days of moving in. Moreover, the logic, and language of the University administration has begun resembling the horrific COVID response that the Trump Administration has engaged in. Though the University is a liberal institution, Virginia a Democratic trifecta and Charlottesville a supposed progressive enclave, the University administration is itself a mirror of the Trump White House.

Initially, in-person classes and dorm move-in were delayed so that the situation could be assessed further. University leadership sent an email Aug. 20 notifying people that someone in the School of Law had contracted the virus, writing that “A positive test in the Law School before the beginning of classes illuminated another reality of that new normal – that cases of COVID-19 will occur.” Despite over 100 cases, University administration announced in an email Aug. 28 that it would continue to bring students back to Grounds. In that email, administration said, “We know people will contract the virus and some will get sick.” This coincides with the rapid move by the University to procure 1,500 beds for potential quarantining students. The University is attempting to redefine “normal” so that when hundreds, or thousands of people, get sick, community members are unsurprised. 

This mirrors President Donald Trump’s own approach to the virus which revolves around managing expectations, gradually and consistently admitting that things will go from bad to worse. Over 180 thousand people in the United States have died from COVID-19. Trump summed up his views saying, "They are dying. That's true... And it is what it is. But that doesn't mean we aren't doing everything we can. It's under control, as much as you can control it." 

In messaging to students, workers and community members, the University emphasizes the strength of our community. The final paragraph of the Aug. 28 email concludes with, “This semester will not be easy… Let’s meet this moment, and this extraordinary challenge, together.” Likewise, Trump began labeling Americans “warriors,” saying that  “we can’t keep our country closed down for years.” The purpose of this rhetoric is to prepare the community for mass outbreaks, and then when they pass — at the cost of people’s health — U.Va. will declare victory and point to how resilient our community is.  

At the core of both the Trump administration and Jim Ryan’s administration is the claim that reopening the economy or school is “worth it” despite the expectation that people will die and get sick. According to both Trump and Ryan, these are acceptable losses.

This is unsurprising. Although there are differences, and each person isn’t fully constrained by their position, Trump’s and Ryan’s roles as President of the United States and University of Virginia, respectively, require them to be beholden to capital, finance and profit. The University administration is nothing but the bearers of financial interests for the school. University administration could denounce Trump all they want, but at the end of the day, they sit on the same side of the table. It’s no surprise that Ryan was on a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence seeking to remove liability from the University. The calculation is purely about profit over people. The estimation is that if Trump’s donors and capitalist class allies make money then it’s worth having 180 thousand people die. Likewise, the University made a calculation that if some checks clear, and maintain U.Va.’s prestige, then it’s worth having 1,500 students and community members getting sick.

It is not too late to change course. In-person classes can be canceled, and an “opt-out” housing approach could be taken. This would allow students to leave campus and move out, getting their money back, and avoiding the cesspool of COVID that is about to become Charlottesville. The coronavirus crisis lays bare the sides and interests at play in reopening. University administration has chosen which side they are on. It’s the side of Trump — the side willing to let thousands of people get sick for the sake of profit. Ryan came to the University to make it “great and good,” just as Trump came to the White House to institute a perverse vision of making America “great.” In this respect, perhaps Jim Ryan and the University administration is already successful at reopening.

Jacob Wartel is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at 

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.