A typical week on campus quickly morphed into a new kind of fear in recent weeks as Kenyatta University students woke up to a “ghost town” on campus Monday morning. There were just three confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19 in Kenya and everyone was becoming worried.
A university that is often jostling with activity was more of a ghost town than an institution of higher learning. You could count the number of students you meet on the street from the gate to the amphitheater and they couldn’t even fill both hands.
Colleges and universities across the country are responding to the coronavirus outbreak at a breakneck pace following the president’s directive. Some, like the Mount Kenya University are transitioning in-person courses to online and, at some institutions, asking students to modify travel plans or vacate student housing with little notice.
For students who remain on their college campuses, whether finishing their courses virtually or continuing to attend in person, experts advise hygiene measures to limit or slow COVID-19 spread. The Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization’s advice for the public also applies to college students:
- Practice social distancing.
- Wash hands vigorously with soap.
- Minimize face-touching.
- Try alternatives to a handshake.
- Contact a health care provider if exhibiting symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.
College students may face some unique risks.
College students, by nature spend a large portion of their time in close quarters with large groups of people (hostels, classrooms, sporting events, libraries, parties, etc.). They are therefore at a higher risk of transmitting contagious illnesses to each other compared to the general public. The impact of large groups of students traveling and congregating has the potential to accelerate the spread of COVID-19.
The elevated risk has led the government suggesting limiting of nonessential travel domestically and internationally. With all the confirmed cases of COVID-19 coming from Nairobi and its neighboring counties, Africa Nazarene University located in Kajiado County was the first to issue a statement suspending classes to prevent the spread of the virus. Numerous other universities have issued similar guidance.
Mental Health Issues
Some college students are facing another health concern resulting from the virus outbreak: mental health issues. Particularly, the anxiety produced by this COVID-19 outbreak is far more likely to have a negative impact on their lives than the actual illness.
Some students are living away from their families and dealing with the possibility that they won’t be able to travel home to see them. In addition, there are many international students studying in Kenya and there have been instances of students facing biased treatment because of their ethnicity or country of origin.
To mitigate mental health issues, students should lean on their communities and support systems, which can include university counseling services.
Additional Challenges for students
Students across the country may experience the outbreak differently depending on their geographical location. And issues of equity and accessibility may further differentiate one student’s experience from another’s. This is particularly as reports of food insecurity and a shortage of affordable housing on college campuses have become common in recent years.
Asking students to change travel plans on short notice can pose additional challenges to low-income or first-generation students. With the stigmatization that the coronavirus patients are likely to face, students showing symptoms may be afraid to go to the doctor.
Students who rely on campus jobs like work study programs, catering, technical work and the setup and staging of events could face challenges as such are canceled due to the virus. The students are now faced with the challenge of fending for themselves during this period of self isolation.
As college students and administrators wade into uncharted waters in responding to COVID-19, many questions remain. While the world awaits a treatment or vaccine for the virus, health care professionals continue to emphasize hygiene practices and their power to prevent further spread.
Adherence to preventative hygiene measures and early symptom reporting are measures that all students can implement to minimize the risks (of) COVID-19 transmission. We recommend that students with fever, cough, and/or shortness of breath to report to the nearest health facility within their area for further instructions about testing and subsequent care.