By Neva Newcombe-Cook
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Louka Morin-Tremblay wakes up at 12 AM. His first class doesn’t start until 2 in the morning, but like anyone he prefers to have some time in the morning to wake up and get ready for his day. He wakes up to darkness in his room in Quebec City, has breakfast, and then does a series of breathing exercises, prescribed to him by his doctor. He will have class at 2 AM, 4 AM, and 6 AM (8 AM, 10 AM, and 12 PM Geneva time), and he will attend all of these classes live. Although Louka’s professors have been flexible in light of his situation, he values the chance to experience any sort of connection, because he has been in isolation since March of 2020.
Louka, who is now 25, has an enormous range of academic experience. While completing his bachelor at the University of Ottawa, he studied international affairs, psychology, geography, communications, and labor laws, but eventually gravitated towards linguistics. Language is Louka’s true passion. He has studied Spanish, Italian, Latin and medieval languages; and of course, as a Canadian, he is fluent in both English and French.
The University of Ottawa is a fully bilingual institution– a stark contrast, he said, to his experience of the Graduate Institute, where the heavy skew towards English has left him “disillusioned.” Based on my own experience, this disappointment seems to be fairly common among IHEID’s French Canadian students. This, however, has been the least of Louka’s problems since matriculating.
Like approximately 100 of his classmates, Louka has been fully remote since September. There are a number of things keeping students away from Geneva. For some, money has been the main barrier; for others, increased governmental red tape due to COVID-19 has kept them out of Switzerland. For Louka, it’s been his lungs.
“The thing is,” he said, “the doctors do not know what it is.” His practitioners have sent samples to China to potentially get more insight into his case, but have had limited success. The operating understanding of Louka’s condition is that he has “dysfunctional lungs,” but specifics about a label or effective treatments for his condition are still cloudy. As an adolescent, he was diagnosed with asthma, but as he aged it became apparent that his condition was more serious. Though he can “function” as long as his environment is cool, clean, smoke-free, and dust-free, his lungs are “never at full capacity,” he said. Some things are clear however: for Louka, breathing takes twice the amount of energy as it does for someone with healthy lungs. At the end of a normal day, he is far more exhausted than you or me because he has expended so much energy breathing; and if he contracted COVID-19, it could be very dangerous.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going straight to the hospital,” he said, “and I don’t know if I’m going to survive or not.” Most 25 year olds can be more or less certain that COVID would leave them bedridden for a week, but not dead. Louka can’t be so sure.
Every morning he does some treatments to get him through the day, including the breathing exercises I mentioned earlier. These treatments have been part of his life for some time now; he’s always had to avoid areas where people are smoking, which has led to some uncomfortable interactions with friends over the years, who see his sensitivity as something of a nuisance.
However, it was only with the onset of the pandemic that Louka’s condition began to truly set him apart from the rest of the population– both figuratively and literally. With the heightened risk of COVID he’s been forced to take precautions that few in his age group have to take, like staying in total isolation. In light of this, Louka began to identify more as a person with a physical disability. Though he has quietly identified that way for some time, the pandemic made him realize he couldn’t “avoid the label” anymore.
Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the connotations of the word “disabled.” In disability studies, they explain that our culture frames disability very punitively: the person, we say, is poorly adapted to the world. Disability advocates would flip the script, and say the world is poorly adapted to the person. For example, many of the moments in Louka’s daily life where his disability becomes an issue could be easily remedied by simple changes, like increased adherence to smoking areas. There are countless ways the world could better accommodate people with disabilities; in fact for some people, like those with chronic pain or mobility issues, remote work has been a godsend and they’re in no rush to return to the office.
The Institute has had remote learning options since the beginning of the school year, but the playing field has never been even for Louka. Remote students have always been at a disadvantage, and Louka’s disability has forced him to stay completely isolated in Canada. The time difference is the most obvious obstacle: he wakes up at midnight and eats lunch at 8 AM, a taxing schedule even for the most physically resilient among us. However, Louka emphasized that the lack of connection and the exclusion from the student community have been the worst parts. This exclusion, he said, has been both social and structural.
Before IHEID went fully online in November, many student events were either in person or only symbolically hybrid, with most of the activities and socializing taking place in person. Louka mentioned that there was no real “virtual space” for remote students to interact casually, so they were pushed into initiatives, which have had a patchwork strategy towards including remote members. While some initiatives have held online meetings throughout the year, many conducted in-person events even during the peak of the second wave in Switzerland. As the weather becomes temperate in Geneva, more and more events are being held in person. Although this may not deliberately exclude remote, high-risk, or disabled students, that’s the effect such conduct has, according to Louka.
“All I can say is that the whole student community and the Institute have been ableist,” he said. “Why are they pushing again and again to go back to the hybrid format? Who is going to be able to profit from that?” Louka asked. It’s a valid question. I can understand why abled students would want to go back to the classroom– I certainly do. I think also of people like Manuel, who went through so many hoops to come to Switzerland only to study from their bedrooms again. However, it’s undeniable that the decision to return to a hybrid format would only benefit a portion of all students. It would benefit those without any comorbidities, those with the funds to travel to and live in Switzerland, those who don’t have high-risk roommates or loved ones. The decision to return to the classroom would do nothing for Louka or those like him, except perhaps enhance their sense of isolation as more student interactions transition back to an in-person format.
As I was wrapping up this article, the Electoral Rules for the upcoming GISA elections were announced, in which the board stipulated that anyone is eligible for the nomination, “on the condition that they are physically present in Geneva for at least two-thirds (⅔) of the weeks during which classes are in session for the two-semester term (Spring 2021-Spring 2022).” Given that the Swiss vaccination schedule is quite uncertain, there’s no guarantee that high-risk students could safely travel to Switzerland before the fall, meaning that high-risk students are de facto excluded from the upcoming GISA elections.
One might say that these issues are unfortunate but inevitable outcomes of the pandemic, which has brought chaos to everyone’s lives and created shifting moral fault lines that we have to navigate with patience. Personally, I think that IHEID students and administrators are exceptionally attentive to issues of injustice. However, ableism has rarely been part of our dialogue about inequality at the Institute, and perhaps that has led to some blindspots in our mental map of disparities. People have fallen through the cracks in our little microcosm of the world. Louka’s case shows that we have more work to do, especially as the international leaders of tomorrow’s world, which is full of cracks.
“Rear window” Photo by Robert Couse-Baker licensed under CC BY 2.0