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Fighting against COVID-19: Young universities adapting to an unprecedented situation


Among the many things that characterise life in the 21st century, there is a sense of omnipotence that distinguishes us, human beings. Used to be always interconnected, always on the go, always accustomed to do as we please, inebriated by the conviction that anything we wish is possible, we often tend to forget how small we are in the greater order of things. Who could imagine, no longer than a month ago, that life as we knew it could be turned upside down so quickly? And, to cap it all, by something so small, so invisible to the human eye as a virus. And yet, it happened. And it is forcing all of us, in our public and private lives, to completely rethink our long-rooted habits. 

For individuals, coping ‘more or less ok’ is fine. From singing on the balconies to clapping hands all together at the window every evening at 8pm; from juggling with kids at home and running from one video-conference to another; from sharing funny ‘memes’ to finally reading that book that has been taking the dust on our night-tables for way too long; from dedicating more (online) time to our beloved ones to transforming ourselves into some sort of ninjas to go to the closest supermarket. There are many things that we can come up with to let this disgraceful moment pass and nothing can be compared to those responding at the frontline of this pandemic. 

When it comes to being responsible for the wellbeing of a whole community, however, it’s another story. And that is what our members are dealing with at the moment. Many are the factors to keep into account (logistics, emotions, safety, just to name a few) and there is little room for improvisation. 

So, how are universities around Europe and the world facing this emergency situation? We have done a little research across our network and we were pleased to see how resilient and flexible the young European research universities are proving to be. While it is now probably too early to draw any lessons from this unpleasant page of history, this quick overview might already serve as a little reflection on the diverse ways in which universities can respond to a crisis. 

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Going fully online

For some, it was already in their blood; for others, it was an occasion to push this forward in order to face exceptional circumstances. Either way, most of the YERUN members have agilely switched their activities and services into an online format. Making use of the different platforms available out there, they make sure students can continue benefiting from their classes in an alternative format. Many of our members have also been proactive in launching online trainings on how to use those platforms, such as UC3M with Blackboard collaborate and Dublin City University (DCUwith specific training for teachers. Plus, services such as the libraries are fully operating online. And if online learning is not enough, you might want to check the University of Rome Tor Vergata, which is also holding the graduation ceremonies online. Pity for the family picture, but good for those students eager to go on with the job hunt chapter! Similarly, University of Eastern Finland (UEF) is holding online the public defences of doctoral thesis. 

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Supporting the students’ wellbeing – along with that of citizens

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Among the many nefastus consequences of Coronavirus, there are two which are equally worrying: anxiety (and its direct ‘companion’, depression) and the spreading of fake news. Many universities have felt the moral obligation to do something about it: after all, what is all the knowledge fostered in the campuses for, if it cannot be useful to society? 

Maastricht University, for instance, has launched a series of webinars open to everyone, in which they explain the functioning of the Dutch healthcare system in the light of COVID-19 and how to deal with anxiety and stress in light of COVID-19. One of the webinars was held by the Executive Board itself, in a Q&A live session open to students and staff. Moreover, Maastricht University’s President, Martin Paul, who is also a clinical pharmacologist, has taken the floor in the university’s blog to personally warn against Coronavirus-related fake news, especially when it comes to medical advice, which are unfortunately spreading in the web at a no slower pace than the virus itself. 

Moving a bit more eastwards, the University of Bremen is using podcasts to reach a change: first, questions were collected by students and citizens on anything concerning the Coronavirus and then Prof. Andreas Dotzauer answered them in this podcast

Across the Channel, University of Essex has put a strong focus on the mental wellbeing of its students by providing a series of mindfulness classes to help reduce stress and calm the mind. At DCU, the Student Support and Development and DCU Healthy have launched a youtube video in which they provide 5 tips for students to stay healthy during this collective confinement. 

When it comes to the supporting students and staff, it is also worth mentioning that most of our members have set up a Covid-19 support mailbox to collect all Corona-related enquiries. 

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Putting research facilities at the service of the fight against the world’s invisible enemy

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

Being a researcher in this historic moment must be scary and exciting at the same time, as research centres around the world are being mobilized in trying to find solutions to the outbreak. 

University of Antwerp is currently on the lead of a Horizon2020-funded project called RECOVER (Rapid European COVID-19 Emergency Research response) in collaboration with 9 international partners. The project, officially launched on 10 March, will address the most urgent questions concerning patient and public health, e.g. how to best prevent the virus from spreading further, complementing ongoing research in other parts of the world. 

Also Ulm University is part of a very ambitious Horizon2020 project called ‘Fight nCoV’, whose goal is to accelerate the development of an effective antiviral therapy.

The Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) has has made available several laboratories for the virus detection (the Institute of Neurosciences, the Institute of Biotechnology and Biomedicine, the faculties of Medicine, Biosciences and Veterinary, plus the scientific and technical services) and its Open Labs’ 3D printing capability is being offered for the manufacture of medical devices. Meanwhile, the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), which is hosted in the UAB campus, is leading a European project called ‘CONVAT’, whose objective is to develop a platform for rapid diagnosis and monitoring of coronavirus.

Researchers of University of Southern Denmark (SDU) have been working on creating a  visual data overview to help customers in Danish supermarkets keep their distance in the queue, hence limiting infection with COVID-19. 

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Now more than ever: let’s listen to our students! 

Students are the soul of our universities, the ultimate recipients of their services and their more genuine judges: now more than ever, we need to listen to them and support them in any way we can. Plus, listening to how they are coping with the limitations imposed by Covid-19 it’s a real mood boost! This is the case of Orla, an Environmental Science and Technology student at DCU, who describes in a genuine tweet how she is coping with distant teaching and what she hopes it will become of online learning after Covid-19. At Brunel University London, Brunel Residence Ambassador Hope, provides some useful tips & tricks on how to spend the extra time at home in a constructive way and shares her favourite TED talks. Chloe, from her side, shares some tips for some good series and books. Solidarity becomes key in these moments and we are pleased to see our students community helping and supporting the more vulnerable ones all over Europe, as shown by these examples from Essex and Maastricht.

We close this article with their voices, as they are the strongest motivation to go on in the fight against this (to our eyes) invisible enemy and, hopefully, go back soon to life as we knew it – hopefully, with a little more mindfulness on how lucky we are. 

Cover: Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

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