Why our unis are essential to beating COVID-19

Scientist in the lab.

By Professor Brian Schmidt, a Nobel prizewinner in physics and vice-chancellor of The Australian National University.

Most of us are living with uncertainty we have never experienced. The global inter­connectivity that has improved human prosperity over 75 years has also quickly spread disease. But we have developed a huge range of technology to help us manage this crisis in ways never before possible.

While today's world is very different from that of the 1940s, humans are not. We need a system-wide response that charts a path through the epidemic. The system-wide response needs to be led by government, informed by the best expertise this nation and the world has. We must do this because the COVID-19 pandemic is with us for the next six to 18 months - and our response must take this into account.

We will need to give up our individualism for a while to avoid the everyone-for-themselves mentality that has crept into many of our actions and created everything from panic buying to noncompliance with public health decisions.

We also need to look at the nature of politics. Our system means the government and opposition are seen to be in competition at a time when we need unity in the national interest. The Australian people, as in times of war, must be able to unify around decisions made by our government. This does not mean blind compliance - we will remain a vibrant democracy. But it does mean trusting that every decision is made outside of normal politics. In the present social-media era every decision is contested, sometimes for its own sake, and those making decisions are undermined and demonised. This has to end. Tough public health calls need to be made outside the echo chamber of politics as usual, and based on the best evidence we have.

Universities are central to this. Society is relying on its universities and medical research institutes to develop vaccines, tests and public health measures to combat COVID-19. Our researchers are also helping design the economic and social responses. Our institutions also provide many of the health workers and facilities that are more critical than ever.

So it is concerning that there is speculation about the closure of universities because of the potential for disease transmission on campus. Clearly, fully closing universities does not make sense given our critical role in fighting the epidemic. That is why universities are en masse making decisions to deliver our classes online, so we can remain operational while limiting the risk of transmitting the virus. We have also led the way on social-distancing measures and will do whatever it takes in the future so that our campuses are safe for the critical activities that must continue.

Arguably nothing we do is more important than preparing our students to graduate as leaders, and take on the challenges facing the world - challenges that will be different from those they imagined just months ago. While the COVID-19 epidemic may seem interminable, the crisis will end. When it does, we will emerge into a changed world. How we react, now and then, will shape our society for decades. Here at the Australian National University, I am determined that our staff and students should take this opportunity to think about that horizon, and how our world can be better on the other side of this epidemic.

Let's take this time to figure out how to better manage our environment and find ways to stop bushfires before they become uncontrollable. Let's develop the pathways to create a fully decarbonised electricity system that more cheaply delivers the power Australia needs. Let's start designing the global order that takes many of the benefits from globalisation but builds in greater resilience for all nations. As the world endures this time of flux, we have the resources to design both our route through and our destination.

This article was first published in The Australian on 24 March 2020.    

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