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UNC 2021-05-19 217次


Address by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the 2021 Spring Commencement of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

May 14, 2021

Thank you, Chancellor Guskiewicz, for that kind introduction.

Members of the faculty, distinguished guests, family members and friends of the graduates and you, the 2021 graduating class of the University of North Carolina, it is a personal pleasure and a true honor to be your Commencement speaker, and I accept with gratitude and humility the honorary degree from this outstanding university.

I have had the privilege of delivering several Commencement addresses over the years, and I invariably have included in these addresses in some manner of form a reference to the fact that I was in your situation many years ago when I graduated from college and then from medical school. And so I felt that I could directly relate to what you have just experienced as a student. I might then go on to draw analogies from my past to your present.

Well, that just does not pass muster this year, for what you have experienced as a result of the profound upending of your lives by COVID-19 is truly unprecedented. No students dating back over 100 years since the historic influenza pandemic of 1918 have had this level of disruption to their lives during their student years. Furthermore, the world into which you will enter as you leave the confines of this beautiful campus has changed dramatically. The adjustments that you will have to make in order to function in the world that awaits you are substantial.

No doubt, it is going to be tough. However, what I’ve seen of how you have responded to this pandemic thus far gives me confidence that you will adjust, and you will thrive. I have seen from a distance how you have cooperated with your faculty in a program to keep your campus safe, and to the degree possible, free of COVID-19, and how you have managed to participate in keeping the University open and functioning while achieving a much lower-than-expected infection rate. This outcome could only have been accomplished by discipline, teamwork and respect for your fellow students.

In addition, several of your UNC scientists, whom I know quite well, are playing major roles in the development of a substantial public health response to this pandemic through the implementation of high-impact biomedical research. Of this, you should feel justly proud. However, as you enter a hurting world that is trying desperately to recover from this historic pandemic that is still raging and whose future course is still uncertain, whether you fully realize it or not, you can play an important role in ending the pandemic and in our recovery from it.

What do I mean by this?

Leadership. I refer here to your potential for leadership. You are graduating from an extraordinary institution. The young men and women of the University of North Carolina are the future leaders of our society – a society that has suffered greatly from a public health standpoint with close to 600,000 deaths in the United States alone and unimaginable physical and mental suffering for millions of others. And from an economic standpoint, with millions of jobs lost and businesses destroyed, perhaps irreparably for some, it is a hurting and changed world, and the new normal to which we will return may not be entirely the same as the normal from which we departed in January 2020.

You are going to play an important role in shaping this new normal. Perhaps it could even be a better normal, but more on that in a bit. For certain, you cannot do it alone, but it cannot be done without you and with your leadership. And so in this regard, leadership is a gradual process that you have already begun when you enrolled here at UNC.

I speak not necessarily of officially-designated leadership, which actually some of you may assume in your careers. I speak of the leadership that can take many forms, including the quiet and subtle leadership of example, which brings me to my next point of discussion: COVID-19 and the bright light shown on society’s failings.

Our country’s experience with COVID-19 has shed a bright light on one of the great failings in our society, and that is the extraordinary health disparities among minority groups, especially African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. These minority groups have a much greater likelihood of getting infected with SARS-CoV-2 and developing the disease COVID-19 because of the nature of the jobs that many of them have as essential workers in society. More importantly, when they get infected with the coronavirus, they have a much greater likelihood of developing a severe consequence of infection due to the greater incidence and prevalence among them of underlying comorbid medical conditions, such as hypertension, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, among several others, that lead to a multifold increase in hospitalizations and deaths compared to the general population.

And you know, very few of these diseases are racially determined and almost all of them relate to the social determinants of health dating back to conditions that many minorities find themselves in from birth regarding the availability of adequate diet, the lack of access to health care and the restriction put upon them by the undeniable racism that exists in our society.

And so let us promise ourselves that our memory of this tragic reality, that an infectious disease disproportionately hospitalizes and kills people because of the color of their skin and that this does not fade after we return to our so-called new normal. It will take a decades-long commitment for society to reverse this trend. And I strongly urge you to be part of that commitment, which brings me to my next point of discussion: public service and social responsibility.

I sincerely believe that regardless of our career paths, we cannot look the other way from pressing societal issues. There are still pockets of society here in our own country that are steeped in poverty, drug abuse, violence, health disparities, inadequate education, racism, discrimination and despair. Some of you may devote your future careers and lives to directly addressing these societal issues. Understandably, most of you will not. But in this regard, public service does not necessarily mean a profession or advocation devoted entirely to public service. One can incorporate public service into your lives regardless of your career choice. So please take this into serious consideration and make it part of your lives. This might hopefully help counter another sad truth prevalent in our society – unprecedented divisiveness, which is my next point of discussion: COVID-19 and a divided nation.

Throughout most of the year 2020, I was a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force under President Donald Trump. In that capacity, I, together with my colleagues on the task force, tried to persuade the country to follow certain public health guidelines that could dampen the outbreak that was evolving, and continues to evolve, into the most devastating pandemic of a respiratory disease in over 100 years. Clearly, we have a common enemy, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and a common enemy requires a unified and consistent response. The guidelines that we developed required restrictions on society that clearly were painful and had enormous economic and individual personal consequences. However, these restrictions were necessary and ultimately saved lives.

I would have thought that, as a nation, we would all pull together, similar to what we had done following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or even during World War II. However, sadly, that has not always happened. Tragically, the pandemic brought to the surface the intense and glaring divisiveness in our society that led to the practice of proven public health countermeasures, such as wearing a mask or avoiding congregate settings, to take on a strong political connotation. What surprised me and, frankly, continues to frighten me, is the willingness of so many people to believe in alternative facts and deny reality that is staring them right in the face, such as believing or pretending to believe that the almost 600,000 deaths from COVID-19 is fake news or a hoax.

It took an historic pandemic which I, as a scientist, physician and public health official, was deeply involved in, and which forced me at times to unfortunately come into conflict with the president of the United States, to impress upon me how destructive to our nation is the current palpable divisiveness among us.

And so, as you leave this extraordinary institution, whether you are a Democrat, Republican or Independent, please do not allow differences of opinion that you might have lead to outright hostility. We will not fare well as a nation, through the current challenge of a pandemic and the inevitable future challenges that our country will face, if we do not pull together with a singular purpose of the common good.

Finally, let us talk about joy. I have been speaking to you over the past few minutes about the serious issues that we are facing in the context of this historic pandemic of COVID-19. Let me assure you, as a public health person who is devoting every waking hour and even some of my dreams to ending this pandemic, that it will end and we will come out of this stronger than we were before this challenge. I promise you that.

And so, putting this serious business aside for a moment, I want to close with a reminder about the joyousness of your life ahead. Allow yourselves to cultivate this joy as much as you do your professional accomplishments. As you might expect, different pursuits and activities provide joy in different ways to different people. Find your own source of joy and happiness and fully embrace it, and let the sounds of your laughter be heard.

Before I close, I am pleased to express my pleasure in sharing the stage with one of your own, my NIH colleague in a true Tar Heel, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.

Congratulations to you, to your families and to your loved ones. Good luck, and God bless you.

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