Fighting COVID-19: universities and local communities join forces
With the coronavirus pandemic spreading quickly across the globe, citizens and institutions join forces to mitigate the transmission of the virus and its consequences to society. Universities have always brought together global knowledge with their local roots, in their national context. This unique capacity to bring these spheres together is paying particular dividends at this crisis with universities swiftly addressing the needs of local communities and finding concrete solutions to the most pressing challenges. But in what ways are these institutions prompting the action of students and staff alike?
Facing the first impact of a quickly spreading virus, national health systems have been exhausting resources at the early stages of the pandemic in Europe. At the universities of Glasgow, Warwick and King’s College London, health faculties' staff and students are temporarily employed as part of the NHS. Another example are the University of Oslo’s final year students in medicine, pharmacy and psychology, among other areas, who are enlisted to contribute to national healthcare, should the need arise.
Intensive care units, which are expected in many countries to run over capacity in the coming weeks, have been struggling to give adequate support to severe COVID-19 cases due to a lack of ventilators. In record speed, UCLouvain has joined forces with the industry to create an open-source ventilator, deployable in the first 48 to 72 hours of treatment. Developed in merely 10 days, the equipment will be available in Belgian hospitals within a week’s time. Many ways have also been found to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). At the University of Bologna, various departments are working together to test the safety of PPE being produced in the Emilia-Romagna region by businesses who, due to the pandemic, have shifted production. Simultaneously, chemistry labs are producing disinfectant solutions to supply hospitals and clean streets. The University of Groningen, in turn, is giving lab coats, glasses and alcohol to national collection points.
The challenges posed by COVID-19 go well beyond the media-streamed images of hospitals, medical staff and infected patients. One major concern that arises from the generalised confinement measures implemented by most European countries is domestic violence. With populations advised to remain at home, for many living with an abusive partner might pose a greater risk than the virus itself. Addressing the invisible consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Uppsala University has reinforced its advice line to support victims of domestic violence.
As populations try to cope with this unprecedented situation, fake news populate social media channels with greater strength. In this sense, governments are putting in place helplines to inform their citizens. Senior students from the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Medicine are now working at the national call centre to provide trustworthy information to Slovenians. Moreover, universities, such as the University of Bern, have been fact-checking information circulating about the pandemic in national media outlets. Efforts have also been made digitally and King’s College London has developed an app to track symptoms related to coronavirus, allowing anyone to self-report daily.
With solidarity being key to overcome the pandemic, institutions look for ways of making this challenging period easier to everyone. Whilst at the University of Radboud they have started a relief action for the elderly, at UCLouvain free online courses were made available to all those who, like us, are at home flattening the curve.
In the coming months, the evolving needs of local communities will call for a continuous readjustment of universities’ ventures, further testing their capacity to adapt to what has been the hardest crisis in recent history. So far, universities have proven to be not only resilient institutions but also places of solidarity and care.