Testing Times: JCR Vice President Bilal Discusses His (Negative) Coronavirus Test and Being in Isolation

I’m not that great at introductions at all, but my name is Bilal. Some of you may know me as the JCR Vice President. Most of you will probably know me from last year, as the guy outside Hussain’s Kebab van every evening waiting for my large cheesy chips with barbecue sauce. But more recently, as a few of you may already have heard, I was the first person on-site at St. Anne’s College who got tested for Coronavirus. (It was negative btw.)

For anyone curious about how serious such circumstances can be, the experience of isolating in College, or just about how different life will be this term, it may be worth putting on that kettle, making some tea and taking a few minutes of your time to read about my weekend:

Following a long line of Vice-Presidents, one of my first responsibilities was to discover new and innovative ways of creating a Freshers’ Week that was even more exciting than the last (Tom really did set that bar a bit too high for my liking) Although the excitement of negotiating club tickets, booking entertainment, and compiling (many many many) Excel spreadsheets can be quite overwhelming, prioritising safety always had to be at the forefront of every plan – certainly, this took a completely new meaning this year around. Within the last three months of working closely with College to ensure that Michaelmas term was as safe as possible, planning Freshers’ Week was proving more and more challenging with every Boris Johnson Coronavirus briefing. In this light, it seemed apt that my luck would continue to run out as I started feeling slightly feverish as the first Freshers arrived on Friday morning. Could it be because I was running to set up for our very first day? Lack of sleep perhaps? Despite these thoughts of denial, I went straight back to my room.

As the fever grew more intense, and new symptoms (eg: coughing, nausea) began to emerge, the dreaded moment had finally come; I sent a message to my household bubble informing them to isolate and booked a test online through the Oxford Early Alert Service (EAS). The first reply in our group chat – “And I oop” – really was the mood for that entire morning. As per the College guidelines, I had also informed the Lodge by phone. Within half an hour, I had received an email from the Catering Manager, Natalie Smyth, requesting my dietary requirements; the Dean of Welfare, Kirren, to see if me or my household needed anything; a phone call from the Domestic Bursar, John Banbrook, to check if I was okay and if I had potentially made any contact outside of my bubble; and a lunch bag of fish and chips outside my door. Throughout my isolation, I was contacted by College Welfare to check up on how I was feeling, and Catering provided me with all of my meals straight to my door. I also knew that if I ever needed anything, our amazing team of Quarantine Helpers would be quick to help out.

5:20pm at the Observatory Pod Testing Centre – I was wearing so much PPE that everyone probably thought I was working there. The walk itself only took around 5-10 minutes from College, with the Observatory pod located just between the Mathematics Institute and Green Templeton, and after waiting for a few minutes in the outside waiting area, I was called inside. Despite all rumours to the contrary, the test was really only 10 seconds of discomfort, and at the end I had a brief chat about my symptoms before being sent back on my way to College. Everyone there was nice, friendly and reassuring (even when warned that I could throw up at any minute…).

Despite my friends reassuring me over Facetime, waiting in my room for my test result proved a bit difficult for my growing anxiety. What about everything I had touched on the way to Ruth Deech that morning? In an attempt to distract myself, I kept busy by organising Freshers’ Week from my room, doing some of my reading, and watching Selling Sunset on Netflix. The prospect of potentially isolating for 2 weeks (and causing my household to isolate too) was also worrying, but we had our fingers crossed in the hopes that we’d be able to come out soon.

My negative test result came around 23 hours after I took my test (although EAS state that you should receive your result within 24 hours, the average waiting time at that point was 14 hours – so I’m sure you can imagine the growing tension as the hours went by). I immediately ran out of my room and banged on the doors of my bubble to let them all know, and as we sat in the corridor, you could sense a huge collective feeling of relief. A few minutes later, I had also received a reassuring phone call from the one and only, Helen King, who had also been waiting anxiously for that comforting email.

Perhaps what I hadn’t anticipated was the consequences of having a cold in general, regardless of my negative result. Not only was coughing in public probably not the best idea in the world, but spreading my cold could also possibly cause more isolation for the others around me. I stayed in my room for as long as possible until I had fully recovered, heavily supported by a constant flow of Strepsils being left outside my room by various friends.

Spending that time in my room provided me with much time to reflect on this unprecedented term ahead. Not only did this whole experience really emphasise how serious a Coronavirus outbreak on College site could be, but also how much we should look out for each other. This not only means standing 2 metres apart to ensure that you don’t cause anyone else to isolate with you (and potentially catch the virus!), wearing your face masks indoors, and sanitising your hands (even when it’s the super slimy hand sanitiser) – but also ensuring that we all feel reassured and comfortable in our “home away from home”. Other Colleges may be the host of historic landmarks, or famous movie settings, but the pride of St. Anne’s has always been ‘the people’, which I’m sure will be an asset to us in the weeks ahead.

I wrote this quite quickly while running around our College events last evening – in an absolutely horrendous attempt at multi-tasking – with the hope of providing some insight into what isolation was like for me. If anyone has any questions, feel free to message me on Facebook or email me at bilal.aly@st-annes.ox.ac.uk !

Much love,