Mar 19, 2020 | Atlanta, GA
Writing about coronavirus is not what I had planned. But these are unprecedented times. In my lifetime, only two other events have triggered the anxiety and uncertainty that many, including myself, feel now. As I child in Puerto Rico, living close to Cuba, I remember the Cuban missile crisis. It was an existential fear, but there was nothing I could do about it. I will never forget September 11, 2001. I was caught in the midst of it, away from my family and office. The fear was also existential, but in a different way. Our way of life was threatened, and indeed was changed, but the world was not about to end, as I had feared as a child during the missile crisis. I also was in a position that required assuring lots of people and implementing responses for the days immediately after, when the nation largely stopped operating normally, and for the disrupted times that followed. But then we knew the enemy, and we at least had an idea of where and how to intercept it or protect against it.
Coronavirus is different. The enemy may very well be hidden on those we care about and are trying to protect. There is no “where,” “who,” or “when” — and only glimpses of the “how.” One of the researchers who works with me told me that this feels like a science fiction horror movie. I agree with him. The difference is that in this deadly serious drama there is no hero in shining armor who will come to the rescue. All of us are having to learn the hard, painful lessons on how to deal with a situation that we, the world, never thought we would face. Nobody can say that we were prepared for this, and Georgia Tech is no exception.
Indeed, there is no single hero in shining armor, but there are many heroic individuals who make us proud and make us feel good about the future. These individuals have gone beyond the call of duty to make the world and Georgia Tech safe by working harder than anyone can imagine. The list is large, and it is impossible to mention them all. I do want to mention that the world owes respect and admiration for Dr. Li Wenliang of Wuhan, China, who early on suspected something was wrong and that Wuhan was facing a new disease. He was ignored and reprimanded, and he later died of the virus.
The World Health Organization warned us about the potential of a pandemic early on. I have to say, they were on top of the issue and had it right. I wish nations across the world had taken them more seriously. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been straightforward, and I admire their willingness to admit their mistakes and our deficiencies in preparedness and resources.
Here at Georgia Tech we fully realize the gravity of this situation, and countless faculty, staff, and administrators have been completely absorbed, working on this issue. Some, in particular, have focused their lives to help us navigate this situation. They know who they are, most of us know who they are, and I profusely thank them. Many difficult decisions have been made, all with the health and safety of students, staff, and faculty in mind. The uncertainties, anxieties, and fears are real, and valid questions and inquiries come every minute of the day. And the corresponding decisions have to be made at almost the same speed. Individuals in every unit of the Institute are working long hours, every day and night, trying to be responsive, to develop policies where needed, and to provide much-needed reassurance. There are not enough words to thank you all. I am incredibly impressed and grateful. This is a real community where we care for one another and, recognizing that we are in territory never before explored, we have to be nimble, flexible, and patient.
The other day I was asked to comment on lessons learned during my career as a leader. My answer was that you do not know what you do not know and that there is always something new to learn. The coronavirus pandemic has already taught me things I did not know. After 40 years of academic leadership, I am facing issues I never dreamed of or foresaw coming.
I have described the demands of this moment as the proverbial challenge of drinking from a firehose, although it is really more like being surrounded by many firehoses and you sort of have to take them on one at a time while being pummeled by the others. This is certainly not the way I expected to end my career as provost, but that is what fate has given us, and we will beat it and come out stronger.
Thank you all for all you do. Stay healthy by taking this situation seriously. But I encourage you, do not be paralyzed with fear. We must carry on with an emboldened respect of the disease and an augmented sense of compassion and care for all around us.
-Rafael L. Bras