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Go Back to the List April 11, 2020
COVID-19 and the ethical responsibility of universities

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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 
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. 
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.
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.

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Written by Christoph Stückelberger,
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