Through email updates from Yale, Instagram stories and texts from friends, I watched students return to campus. Even though I had chosen to take a leave of absence this semester, I still felt reassured by the rigorous testing and quarantine procedures that had been promised. And as far as I can see, the University has delivered. The low number of positive cases so far suggests that perhaps things really can be kept under control. But in all of these statements from Yale, what’s missing is the emphasis on the greater community around us: New Haven.
As students at Yale, we hold certain privileges and responsibilities in New Haven. We often hear about the “town-gown” divide that exists at most prestigious universities, but it was only during my first year that I became familiar with the less than symbiotic relationship the institution has here. During one of the first protests I attended, a New Haven climate rally, I learned that Yale owns about $2.5 billion of tax-exempt property but pays about $5 million in annual property taxes (in addition to a voluntary payment of around $12 million a year). Some argue that The Shops at Yale do more to gentrify than to provide economic value to the city and that Yale should invest more in the city beyond its boundaries. Others argue, however, that Yale’s tax-exempt status helps New Haven receive more state and federal aid.
People often ask me how I find living in New Haven, considering its reputation for having a “high crime rate” and significant homeless population. I tell them that I love it, because to be honest, I’ve learned a lot from Yale in just one year, but I’ve learned just as much, if not more, from New Haven. Yale and its students take a lot from New Haven, often without giving the same amount back.
During the pandemic, the divide stretches even further. Returning Yale students have guaranteed testing, healthcare and housing, but while Yale did provide frontline workers with student dormitories over the summer, the difficulties facing more vulnerable groups, such as New Haven’s homeless population, are glaring. Communities of color have also been hit the hardest in New Haven. Early in April, 43 percent of people hospitalized for COVID-related issues were Black.
As students cross state borders or take international flights to return to school, I’ve noticed some friends — thankfully, not at Yale — breaking quarantine orders and even traveling. I tried to empathize with them — after all we’ve all been through a lockdown (in Singapore, our “circuit-breaker” lasted about two and a half months), and this would be their second two-week quarantine on top of that.
I get that it’s hard being cooped up, especially right now — you’re young and university is supposed to be the time of your life, right? But, ultimately, I just ended up frustrated at my friends’ audacity in taking these measures so lightly. If there are second and third waves of the pandemic, they will likely still have a place to return to, but others may not be so lucky. In my case, I’m very fortunate that Singapore has maintained low community cases for long enough that we can go back to work and socialize in limited numbers and with masks. But even here, we owe our relative safety to frontline workers and our relative freedom to the sacrifice of our migrant workers, whose lockdown under unremittingly bleak dormitory conditions and isolation from the community continue on, so that we can go out.
Right now, our freedom, our ability to go where we want when we want, comes at a cost to someone else. We owe it to our communities to be as cautious as we can be.
I may be warning against a storm that never comes, and I hope I am, but the emphasis on protecting New Haven from Yale, rather than Yale from New Haven, is lacking. Yale has long had a complex relationship with its city, as had its students (I previously wrote about the uncomfortable elitist attitudes some of us hold), but it is ever more crucial to highlight that right now. We need to invest more in New Haven, as an institution and as individuals, for the long term.
And please, before you consider throwing a party, traveling or taking a risk with your health, consider that for some, that risk includes having nowhere else to go.
MIRANDA JEYARETNAM is a sophomore in Pierson College. Her column runs on alternate weeks. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .