The Spartan Phalanx: Our Community Can Come Together to Defend Against COVID-19

Prabu David, Dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Though the prospect of fall football season holds uncertainties, we have a new rival in town. As usual, we must protect our home turf by summoning the indomitable spirit that lives in Spartan Stadium.

It is believed that ancient Spartans were known for their intense team spirit and impenetrable defense, which was achieved by soldiers who quickly stepped in to fill gaps and weaknesses in their storied phalanx.

Similarly, today’s Spartans can beat COVID-19 only through a strong defense in which our students play a major part. Despite the recent spike in cases, I believe this generation of Spartans who care deeply about social justice can make a difference in shielding the most vulnerable members of our community by taking essential precautions.

The cherished rites of fall are integral to the college experience and, after months of social distancing, students’ desire to connect with friends is understandable. Yet this year, we must use our imagination and creativity to simulate this communal experience while maintaining a safe physical distance and keeping alcohol use in check.

Close interaction at parties continue to be a key source of transmission, and there is no room for compromise — in face covering, distancing or practicing good hygiene. Large gatherings and irresponsible alcohol use could upend our fall semester.

We can draw encouragement from research findings that show increased restraint and responsibility in alcohol use among Spartans (yes, this is true).

Perhaps the most heartening finding is that students are “watching out for one another,” according to Dennis Martell, health promotion director at Olin Student Health Center. In one study, approximately 60 percent of MSU students reported they can rely on their friends to let them know when they have had enough to drink.

We should rely on our students to help other students, to fortify our defenses and support our community. We must designate peers who are trained and tasked with influencing friends to conform to safe practices in social gatherings. Training and activating a large number of student leaders and influencers is likely our best option to exert positive peer pressure and keep our defense intact. The other weapon in our fight against the virus is regular self-monitoring.

Our community compact states that all members are expected to quarantine or isolate, should they experience symptoms of COVID-19. This requires self-reporting of fever and other symptoms, as well as voluntary participation in a community detection program, such as the spit test. Reporting of symptoms or testing positive will no doubt cause inconvenience, limiting movement and choice. Yet, this generosity can keep our community safe.

In the weeks ahead, more transparency on testing and contact tracing is needed to build confidence and trust in our response. Additional care must be given to members of minority communities who have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. To earn trust and encourage participation in self-monitoring and testing, we cannot associate shame or stigma with a positive test, and we must commit to caring for all members of our community who test positive.

As individuals, our grace and flexibility will be the gift that we can offer our university while we embark on the biggest social experiment in the history of our institution.

Further, against the backdrop of a contentious national election and racial tensions, our unity will be tested.

Despite our differences, we must draw strength from our common identity as Spartans. Instead of rooting from the stands, this year, we get to suit up and join the Spartan defense. We will rise to the challenge. Together, We Will.