UM Students are smart: COVID-19 is not. Beat the virus!

UM Students are smart: COVID-19 is not. Beat the virus!

Rector’s Speech
Opening of Academic Year 2020 – 2021

Theme: UM Students are smart: COVID-19 is not.
Beat the virus!

Għeżież Ministru, Kollegi u Studenti, speċjalment il-freshers ta’ din is-sena. Merħba!

Min kien jobsor illi kont se jkun qiegħed nagħmel dan l-address billi nitkellem dalgħodu f’sala ħafna minnha vojta u bl-istudenti, li għalihom jgħodd dan il-messaġġ, neħħi l-ftit li hawn quddiemi, jarawni u jisimgħuni biss minn fuq l-iskrins.

Din is-sena daħlu fl-Universita’ ‘l fuq minn 4600 studenti ġodda, tlett mija aktar mis-sena l-oħra. Anke ż-żmien u l-mod ta’ kif daħlu l-freshers din id-darba ġie affettwat mill-pandemija li ma ħallietx lis-sixth formers ikollhom sena skolastika normali u eżamijiet fi żmienhom.  Allura kellna nibdew iktar tard mis-soltu u mingħajr iċ-ċertifikati tal-Matrikola f’idejhom. Kif tafu, dawk li mhux se jirnexxilhom iġibu l-erbgħa u erbgħin punt imma biss sitta u tletin fil-Matsec se nħalluhom ikomplu bl-istudji magħna fuq bażi proviżjonali u jekk jgħaddu mill-eżamijiet tal-ewwel sena jitilgħu għat-tieni sena mingħajr iktar restrizzjonijiet. Dan qed nagħmluh għaliex irridu ngħinu kemm nistgħu lil dawn l-istudenti żgħażagħ li diġa’ kellhom ħafna problemi mhux tas-soltu sabiex jispiċċaw il-kors fil-Junior College jew f’xi sixth form sabiex jaslu b’suċċess f’Tal-Qroqq. Din is-sena, għandna inqas studenti internazzjonali magħna u dan ukoll minħabba l-COVID-19 li ma ħallix studenti jaqsmu minn naħa għal l-oħra tad-dinja jew minħabba r-restrizzjonijiet tas-safar jew għaliex beżgħu jkunu bogħod mill-familthom f’dan iż-żmien tan-novel coronavirus.

Dear international students, especially the freshers of 2020, welcome to Malta and its premier University! We’re so glad you’ve chosen to study with us, and for those of you who travelled to the islands, may the experience prove to be fulfulling and rewarding, including through the forging of new and lasting friendships. 

I have chosen as motto for this year the most important and pressing message I could think of. “Let’s beat the virus”. And we can do that together “because we’re smart”.  We are here to celebrate the beginning of a new academic year, but this time it’s a different situation since we have an invisible enemy lurking in our midst, trying to stop us from our working together. However, because you’re smart, and the enemy is brainless, we will not lower our guard and we will re-establish life on campus as normally as we can in the present circumstances. 

The year 2020 will remain etched in the annals of this venerable University as the year when COVID-19 caused the campus to shut its doors to students and the University to become practically totally reliant on remote teaching via digital platforms. Although the doors were shut, the University, of course, didn’t close down! All this happened in a context where the country and indeed the entire world were brought to their knees economically as we watched disbelievingly, on television and internet sources, the terrible effects of the offensive by the coronavirus. Over a million persons worldwide have died and there is no end in sight yet. The grim statistics of death are also picking up locally, after a period during the so-called “first wave” which may have lulled us into thinking that Malta was a special case where very few people die from the infection. 

So it is with a degree of trepidation that we decided to bring back our students on campus and to do that at this point in time. Why have we done it? 

It is because we firmly believe that the young women and men who comprise the bulk of the student community at UM are desirous of, and deserve, an education of quality and are also responsible, reliable and conscientious individuals worthy of our trust. We are convinced that they care for their own wellbeing and, perhaps even more importantly, that of their loved ones. Medical science tells us that this virus is often only a nuisance to the young generation (at least when healthy) and very often they may not even feel any symptoms; although the virus can be a cruel killer of the older set and the not-so-very old.  But our students do know this and have been living with this actuality for several months as they go about their business and leisure pursuits. We expect them to bring with them to the campus the same caution, prudence and restraint that they have exercised during the past few months precisely because they care for their parents, their grandparents, relatives and friends who, unlike themselves, are vulnerable. 
It is with the dual conviction that, firstly, our students are smart and secondly, they are caring individuals,  that we have decided to go for in-person teaching rather than wholesale and only online provision. In order to mitigate the risks, we will limit the numbers on campus and take all those precautions as are called for in times like this. 

We especially want our freshers, where possible, to experience the change from post-secondary education to university; but not only. We want to restore to as many students as possible that entitlement to normalcy one associates with a traditional university education while, at the same time, keeping the numbers on campus at any one time as small as possible.  But to keep safe, it is essential that our students play their part and I am quite confident they will,  because, I repeat, they care for their loved ones and they’re smart. 

Being smart means always sticking to the health and safety rules as dictated by health authorities and our published guidelines – keeping appropriate physical distance especially between students not in your group; sanitizing hands frequently; and, above all, wearing face covering, preferably a paper or cloth “mask” rather than a visor.  According to Robert Redfield, Director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, wearing a mask is far better protection against the spread of coronavirus than a vaccine will be. So, the message is clear: be smart and leave the mask on. Especially important, if you can’t see the sky (because you’re inside), you have to wear a mask. Be even smarter and keep the mask on even when you’re outside. Considering that a vaccine is not likely to be available for several more months, the mask will remain our best protection for a while. 

Why is it important for students to be present physically on campus? 

It is because students learn best and gain optimal education when they meet and interact with lecturers and professors and other expert staff through personal contact and direct communication. And then, of course, there are certain subjects which simply cannot be learnt except through physical experience: for example, how else can one learn to perform complex chemical analysis except by being present in a lab and doing it; how can a performing arts student learn the skills except by actually trying in a studio? And I can mention numerous other examples where online simply doesn’t and cannot ever deliver. 

But beyond these obvious, almost banal, reasons that speak eloquently for the supremacy of in-person education, there is another, possibly more important reason: namely, that only physical presence on campus allows for meaningful social interaction among students through which they learn how to communicate ideas, gain insights, provoke and receive reactions, influence peers, learn to plan and execute projects in teams; master the art of social navigation through and around the complexities of friendships and other deeper relationships, experience disappointments, get out of conflicts and understand the satisfaction of helping others and of peace making. It is this total experience, with its ups and downs, that is so special and one that makes University education on campus so enriching.

Now, as already stated, social interactions on campus and indeed off campus have to take place cautiously and responsibly. We all need to be constantly mindful of the fact that, prowling amongst and within some of us, there may be present this lifeless bunch of nucleic acids, which having somehow made a landing on the right biological stuff, can spring into aberrant life to spread  misery. We need to stay vigilant and not let this mindless molecular presence to exploit us especially while we’re off campus, living our life. Several studies have recently shown, as indeed just reviewed in the international journal Early Human Development by our own Professor Victor Grech and co-authors Elizabeth Grech and Jeremy Borg Myatt, that while“ The pandemic situation may be exacerbated by irresponsible behaviour at any age”  however “ Adolescents seem to be particularly troublesome globally, with their propensity to party.” So, this is my challenge to you today, dear students: show us that you can buck the global trend! Show us that you’re special. Do enjoy life but live it carefully and prudently, at least for now, in the time of pandemic.

On campus, we are striving to ensure that conditions for both students and staff are kept safe from COVID-19. The safeguards include include the tagging of people with brightly coloured wrist bands. This simple device will not serve simply to declare to others around us that our body temperature on the day is not higher than 37.2 degree Celsius: rather it shall be a constant reminder to the wearer that, in everything they do, they need to remain vigilant and careful because they care for each other and the ones at home. Indeed, I invite you to not remove the wristband once you exit the campus but continue wearing it on your way home, flaunt it while you’re on the bus and show it proudly to your loved ones at home as evidence that you care for them above all. 

Before I close on this subject, may I remind you to download the app “COVID alert Malta” which is a useful tool to help in the national effort against the coronavirus. 

I now wish to make another reflection in order that we keep the pandemic crisis in its proper perspective. Everybody waits for the vaccine against the coronavirus, seen as the panacea to put the world back on track and leave the woes behind. Sadly, the biggest problem today for the planet is not the current pandemic but climate change and global heating. Indeed, a tragic outcome of the pandemic may be that of having distracted the world from the peril of this serious and present threat. Moreover, there does not appear to exist the determined resolve to solve the climate problem similar to that currently being witnessed in the race for an effective vaccine. 
The pandemic had the unfortunate effect of curtailing climate activism by the younger set, clearly the smarter ones in our societies: these kids couldn’t continue to congregate and stop traffic in the big polluted cities in order to protest the inaction and apparent complacency of world governments.
The pandemic also had the negative effect of delaying the important UN Climate Change Conference of State Parties (COP 27) that had to take place in Glasgow this year, now postponed to November 2021. This delay impacts most severely the more vulnerable countries, such as the African states, which suffer the most from effects caused not by their actions but those of the developed, energy hungry First World. Developed countries should own up to their responsibilities and provide climate finance to poor, developing States in adequate amounts for these countries to be able to cope with adaptation and mitigation measures. This is the least the First World should do.
On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic did manage to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to an extent that no other world cataclysm had managed to do previously: not World War II, not the steep rise in oil prices in the 1970s, nor the financial crash of 2008. Estimates from the International Energy Agency put the carbon emissions reduction value to about 8% of the global total, which is some 300 billion tons of CO2. People travelled less by car because of lockdowns,  and a lot less by air as countries closed airports in an effort to self-isolate; concomitantly, carbon emissions crashed and air quality improved dramatically. But will it last, going forward? Not likely. 
And is it truly an unintended positive outcome from the pandemic? Was the 8% reduction in emissions worth the cost?  
Considering that the pandemic has to date caused over 1000 000 extra deaths and tens of millions to lose their work, it appears not. Even the economics don’t seem to make sense. A US-based think tank (Rhodium Group) calculated the cost of the carbon reduction in terms of dollar amount per tonne of CO2 saved at between US $3 000 to 5 000: Bill Gates, in his blog, deems this to be excessive compared to what economists regard as a more reasonable value for this parameter of about $ 100 per tonne. 

So unfortunately, it appears that the coronavirus did too little and too expensively in relation to climate action. 

Although, on the other hand, it can be argued, that it did manage to very effectively focus our minds on a global catastrophy which spared no country, albeit, of course, to different degrees depending on its wealth. 
How will the climate global catastrophy play out?  
The drama of climate change isn’t taking the whole world by storm in a synchronized common manner, as happened with COVID-19: instead it manifests itself in different modes in diverse geographic regions and at different  periods. Witness, for example, the devastating firestorms in California and the same again in Australia, and the horrific hurricanes in regions that did not suffer loss from forest fires and the bleaching of corals of the Great Barrier Reef. So the connection to climate change is not readily made. But all of these are the stark facts of climate change and to them one can add the spectacular melting of the ice caps; the transgression of seawater over coastal lowlands and the wiping out of Pacific islands, the concerning extinction of biological species reminiscent of the fossil record breaks defining geological periods and of course the human health effects.

 According to WHO, between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause a quarter of a million additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress; the direct damage costs to health, that is excluding costs in sectors such as water, sanitation and agriculture (which factors also determine health outcomes indirectly) is estimated to be between US $ 2 – 4 billion/year by 2030. The same agents responsible for causing climate change, namely fossil fuel based energy generation, transportation and industry,  also bring about a degradation of air quality which pollution, according to WHO, is resulting, already today, in 7 million premature deaths per year from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory conditions. In the face of these figures, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic almost pale into relative insignifance. 

There is perhaps one thing which the pandemic has managed to do that could possibly help promote the cause of climate action: this was pointed out in a comment made on TV by an academic from Lancaster University, Professor Gail Whiteman and her comment merits repeating here. She told CNBC this about how governments have reacted to the health emergency, “this is the first time I have seen governments choosing humanity over economics in such a significant way – ever”. Continuing she said “this is a yes-we-can moment for the climate crisis”. 
Indeed, if only governments had to listen to climate scientists and take them as seriously as they have public health scientists, then perhaps there is hope for the planet yet. Our children and their offspring and the other species around us and above us richly deserve it. 

And universities everywhere should never stop repeating this message. Moreover, research related to climate action, including mitigation and adaptation strategies, should be prioritized and better funded because our fortunes and our very lives depend on it.

Thank you.