Lessons of COVID-19 might define human success in the 21st century

March 28, 2020
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Andrew Petter

This op-ed was published in the Vancouver Sun on March 28, 2020

By Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University

We stand amidst an unprecedented global crisis, an urgent test of humanity’s capacity to work together to resolve a threat to our collective health, our social cohesion and our economic welfare. At a global level, our lives and legacy hang in the balance — for good or ill, future generations will judge and draw lessons from our response.

It is, of course, too early to predict how we may fare. Certainly, some people, some sectors and some countries have already performed much better than others. Indeed, some early reactions have revealed the energy, creativity and innovative spirit that humans can bring to a crisis — this combination of threat and opportunity.

Of necessity, I view the COVID-19 challenge through the lens of a university president. I lead an institution whose practices are rooted in a thousand years of history. But if that suggests an organization that is traditionalist and resistant to change, I would challenge that characterization for SFU even under normal circumstances, and dismiss it categorically today.

For, in the past two weeks, we at SFU have transformed our institution in a way that, a month ago, I might have thought impossible. We have moved our entire educational program from the classroom to the cloud and other platforms. Instructors from every discipline have embraced teaching techniques and technologies with which many were unfamiliar barely a fortnight ago. Working from their homes, they have mobilized to deliver their lessons remotely, enabling students to maintain their studies and access crucial supports, even as the world learns the difficult discipline of social distancing.

This points to another challenge: The costs of isolation. Thanks to a major project that SFU undertook some years ago with the Vancouver Foundation, we are keenly aware that this region is vulnerable to a damaging level of social isolation. Indeed, this recognition animated our commitment to become a leader in community engagement.It is vital, therefore, that today’s social distancing does not mean social disconnection. During this stressful time, we need to reach out and connect with each other more than ever, albeit in ways that avoid close physical proximity. To this end, SFU Public Square has already launched an initiative called Community Engagement in a Time of Social Distancing, which includes a set of tools to help people stay connected. (A comprehensive set of resources is listed at www.sfu.ca/publicsquare/covid-19-engagement.html.)

SFU will have still more to offer in the coming weeks. We are already making contributions in research. Dr. Caroline Colijn, our Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Infection, Evolution and Public Health, has been appointed to the federal government’s COVID-19 expert panel. A team led by Drs. Lena Dolgosheina and Peter Unrau is using SFU-invented RNA imaging technology to develop advanced coronavirus testing kits. And Dr. Kelley Lee leads a project that is supporting global coordination of the COVID-19 outbreak response.

We also are looking at facilities and resources across all three of our campuses to see what more we can do to support local communities at this crucial time.

So, yes, COVID-19 has changed the world, probably permanently. But, together, we are responding with unbelievable speed. As Queen’s University Principal Patrick Deane said this week, if Canada’s universities had contemplated moving a million students to remote learning “outside the context of a public emergency, we would have been hard pressed to manage it in less than a decade!” But we did it.

In the coming months we must endeavour to make the most of these and other innovations, learning lessons that might help to resolve other societal challenges — such as the opioid crisis, food insecurity and climate change.

COVID-19 has shown that by marshalling our resources and taking collective action guided by evidence and expertise, we can overcome problems that might otherwise seem insurmountable.

It also provides a daunting reminder that we are all in this together, and that it is our individual and collective responsibility to mount a response that exemplifies the best of humanity.

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