COVID-19 and the ethical responsibility of universities

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Vietnamese translation:

The global emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic confronts us all with unpredictable, disruptive situations which have changed our daily lives, economies, political decisions – and universities. Important changes have been made in terms of online teaching and admission and exam schedules and have stirred discussions about what a post-coronavirus university landscape might look like.

Amid all the uncertainty and shock, universities are obliged to stick to their basic values and ethical responsibilities, which give academics a sense of direction and credibility. The following 10 ethical issues are valid across continents and political systems, according to our global ethics network

Ethics under emergency orders

Emergency orders, which have been used in many countries for the first time since the Second World War, have been necessary and give much greater powers to governments in this global war against a common enemy, a virus.

Borders are closed, people must stay at home in ‘self-isolation’ and many companies and some universities may collapse if financial help from governments is not provided very soon. Values such as solidarity are impressively practised. The emergency does not mean that ethics are overridden and disabled. On the contrary, they are needed more than ever.

Leaders with academic integrity

Universities and academics are seen as credible, independent voices. Such academic integrity is even more important in emergency situations. Virologists are the new stars with their analyses. Researchers work around the clock on vaccines and other solutions; but social sciences and all other disciplines are needed now to uphold academic integrity.

It is likely the pressure to issue manipulated certificates or let students pass exams will increase under emergency rules due to strong financial pressures at all levels. Extraordinary situations need flexible solutions in terms of assignments, admissions dates, academic schedules, exams and publications.

The likelihood of students losing a semester may be unavoidable in some countries, but, even in such extraordinary situations, the academic integrity of teachers, students, researchers and university leadership must be upheld. The pandemic shows the crucial importance and need for leaders with integrity, honestly serving the people with power entrusted in them and not primarily serving their own political or economic interests.

Equal treatment

Online teaching is a smart solution and is much needed. Many universities have developed creative solutions at short notice, but complaints about educational inequality, especially in developing countries, are increasing. Full equality may not be possible as technological conditions vary too much, but all possible efforts to promote equal treatment should be made.

Truthfulness in an infodemic

‘Facts, not fear’ is a key message of our governments. We, as academics, are crucial contributors to factual dialogue and should resist ideological pressure. After the crisis and sometimes in the midst of it, politicians are tempted to re-interpret facts and re-write history in order to prove that they have taken the right decisions at the right time for the best results for their country.

Resisting conspiracy theories

Uncertainty, a lack of information and-or political interest often lead to all kinds of conspiracy theories as has been the case in history. For example, during the Black Death or Great Plague of the 14th century, which killed many millions of people, Jews were scapegoated with false claims that they had started it by poisoning wells. Violent attacks on Jewish communities ensued and thousands of Jews were murdered.

Conspiracy theories are increasingly circulating on social media during this pandemic. Some see the virus as a biological weapon of one of the superpowers who are supposedly seeking to destroy other superpowers (lawyers in the United States have launched a class action lawsuit against China seeking US$20 trillion compensation for damages caused in the US); others blame 5G technology; others see some populations or ethnic groups as immune to the coronavirus.

Ethical academic behaviour means resisting conspiracy theories through careful independent scientific research. Conspiracy theories can lead to the persecution of political, ethnic and religious groups.

Character building and self-reliance

Homeworking, self-isolation and exclusively online communication are very difficult experiences and will become tougher with the extensions likely over the coming months. They show that social, emotional and mental strength are as necessary as intellectual capacity. Character building and self-reliance are becoming an ever more important part of academic education.

The ethics of debt

The extreme economic turbulence caused by the pandemic will also lead to very serious financial challenges of students and higher education institutions. Post-coronavirus finance ethics will bring a need to critically review the level of individual and institutional academic indebtedness. Political and economic decision-makers will need to contribute to innovative solutions to reduce and share the burden of these economic effects.

Balanced globalisation

Student mobility has reduced and national protectionism has increased as a result of the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19 globalisation was vulnerable because of its interconnectivity. Travel and trade restrictions show that we cannot solely depend on a global economy; we also need local and regional supply chains. On the other hand, the cyber world and internet connectivity offer ways of adapting quickly to new situations.

Let’s learn from this pandemic how to achieve a healthy balance between globalised and localised economies. Academic work must be globally connected, but in a sustainable way. The pandemic also confirms the key role of multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO), but also multilateral academic institutions and networks.

Religions matter

Most humans would describe themselves to some extent or other as religious and their values and ethics come from their faith. The religious part of existence needs to be integrated into the academic world – with scientific objectivity and openness.

Religious fundamentalisms and false prophets (of denial, trivialisation or apocalyptic exaggeration of the pandemic) need to be addressed in order to give solid ethical answers – possibly informed by religion – to the current challenges.

Solidarity and speed when addressing SDGs

This pandemic shows that humanity is able to stand together – in spite of justified national interest – and to act with speed and determination. These characteristics are often missing when facing other global threats.

Climate change is a process as dramatic as the pandemic, which will cost even more lives, but it is happening at a slower rate and therefore the political will to act in time is missing. Millions of children die every year of hunger and because of a lack of clean water – why not act with the same determination and speed when it comes to climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Trillions of dollars have been approved within days to support the victims of the pandemic and to stabilise the economy. Why not for achieving the SDGs?

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