Universities have a vital role in fighting coronavirus

Humanity is experiencing a moment of great uncertainty. This is not the first time a pandemic has threatened the lives of millions of people. However, the speed with which governments and scientists are reacting to events is unprecedented.

In an incredibly short time after discovery of the coronavirus, public health measures have been implemented and the development of defences in the form of medical therapies and vaccines begun.

At this precarious moment, when the proliferation of information (and misinformation) from a variety of sources contributes to the spread of panic, universities and the scientific community are emerging as the best and most reliable sources of information as highly qualified personnel can address the pandemic and its terrible economic, political and public health consequences.

In fact, nobody can predict the future at this point. In a world crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, the outlook has become even more nebulous. We simply don’t know how or when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, and it will modify the way we live on our planet in so many ways.

Even with so many uncertainties, universities must respond and keep moving. Leadership in higher education institutions must still make decisions and provide answers on a daily basis. And the best way to proceed is to allow the mission of the institution to serve as the main compass while considering the needs of all the people the institution serves.

The importance of universities

Paradoxically, in Brazil this pandemic has been a game changer in terms of the public perception of higher education institutions, lately under constant attack. Public universities and science have been discredited by both fake news and undermined by budget cuts – the current crisis now underscores the importance of public universities and research institutes for the future of the country and the world to face this and future threats.

While the importance of higher education is starting to be appreciated again, higher education institutions still face major internal challenges and new problems every day. Even without clear answers, decisions must be made and we will only know if the best decisions were made in the future.

Let me use the University of Campinas (Unicamp), where I am currently the rector, to illustrate some of these difficult decisions and how we have tackled them.

Unicamp has around 40,000 students and is responsible for health services to the extended surrounding area encompassing around 6.5 million inhabitants. We were the first Brazilian university to suspend non-essential, on-site activities on 12 March.

Being aware of the situation in other countries and after listening to my vice-presidents and an ad-hoc internal crisis working group, I decided to make this complicated decision. The response to this choice was loud criticism from several sectors, including different spheres of government and other institutions, who insisted that this was a hasty decision.

But everyone who had criticised the decision followed the same path a few days later. In several interviews at that time, I said that I would rather sin by being overzealous than by omission at such a delicate moment. When we looked at the examples of countries where the disease had already spread, there was no doubt about what the right decision was, even considering the complexities of our specific context.

Evidently, the key question was how should we proceed with teaching activities? Some groups at the university defended the cancellation of all teaching activities for the semester, a path taken by some Brazilian universities.

This seemed like the most practical decision in the short term, for countless reasons. However, we were worried that there would be very serious consequences on the lives of students (present and future), on the many activities of the campus community and, of course, on the perception of the university by society.

Flexibility matters

We decided to maximise non-face-to-face educational activities. In doing so, we faced a series of unprecedented problems, probably shared by many universities around the world – how to change a system based mainly on classroom teaching to an online system in few days; how to deal with students who lacked the financial resources for the necessary technology or internet access; how to support teachers with no training or experience in online education; how to maintain the quality and excellence of our courses; how to evaluate students; how not to leave anyone behind.

We tried to face up to each challenge, knowing that we are living in a unique moment and that the keyword had to be ‘flexibility’.

In the case of less-privileged students, we mobilised groups inside and outside of the campus community to get donations of used equipment and funds to buy prepaid internet plans so that these students could attend online classes.

It is worth noting that there is no culture of philanthropy in Brazil, so we had to create a structure to receive donations in less than a week. We also transformed around 2,000 scholarships that covered expenses for commuting students into ‘emergency support for off-campus activities’.

Similar initiatives were launched to seek donations and support for the university’s medical expertise as well as our research efforts. We need to play an important role in providing medical support for COVID-19 patients in the region during these critical times while facing up to challenges such as a lack of staff (owing to the large number of nurses and doctors that have become ill), insufficient beds and increasing difficulties in getting hold of equipment and supplies.

Several groups from different areas of expertise also rapidly organised to redirect their research towards combating the coronavirus.

All these efforts were organised under the umbrella of ‘Unicamp’s Taskforce COVID-19’. The results are already beginning to be felt in diverse arenas.

Public engagement

Finally, several initiatives were launched to increase outreach initiatives and communicate accurate scientific information to the public.

To mention just a few examples: medical and nursing students organised a hotline to deal with doubts and concerns; a group of our older students in our lifelong learning initiative started an ‘active listening’ group to talk to people who are isolated and lonely; and the university started a programme to seek donations to organise the distribution of basic food and hygiene products for people in need. Several blogs and podcasts were launched to explain different aspects of the pandemic.

Besides the examples above, there are many other challenges to address, including the safety of our community and neighbourhood, our financial sustainability, our internationalisation strategy and our relationship with governments, among others.

Public universities have a commitment to students and their families, and to the larger society that finances them. Perhaps most importantly, they must provide basic and applied research as well as direct medical assistance. Universities must disseminate scientifically correct content and participate in campaigns to ensure that the population has timely, accurate information.

As harsh as the forecasts are for the immediate future, universities will be up to the challenge. In such a complex atmosphere, their focus must continue to be their mission and they must make every effort to demonstrate to the society that sustains them that their primary role is the well-being of that society.

Higher education institutions have a duty to continue their activities, despite the restrictions that the current situation imposes. They represent a huge social investment that cannot be overlooked or minimised. Now, more than ever, they must make it clear that this long-term investment is fundamental for a better future for all.

Marcelo Knobel is rector of the University of Campinas (Unicamp), Campinas, Brazil.