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President Chan’s address to the KAUST Community

22 March, 2020

Hello KAUST community,

COVID-19 is unlike anything that I have encountered in my life. The enemy is invisible and yet its effect can be devastating. There is no cure yet and scientists are still trying to learn as much about it as possible. This uncertainty is adding to the anxiety for the global population. Its reach is global and knows no national or ethnic boundaries.

At KAUST, we have been dealing with the crisis since early January, when we officially formed our Coronavirus Task Force. We have issued 25 announcements, from our initial advice on curtailing travel to our most recent policy on closing our campus to in and out traffic. Our actions are a direct reflection of the rapidly developing response within Saudi Arabia and globally. As we record this, the Kingdom has now reported over 300 confirmed cases. Fortunately, there have been no confirmed cases at KAUST and we are doing our best to keep it that way for as long as possible. The Saudi government’s response to the crisis, and its decisive leadership, have been exemplary.

Watch the President's video address on the KAUST website.

The Taskforce consists of dedicated experts, ranging from health, safety, community life, facilities management, to government affairs, HR, finance, procurement and communication. There are also faculty and student representatives. They have all been hard at work, meeting daily to formulate and implement our response. In addition, we have also formed a Coronavirus Crisis Management Team, that I chair myself, and that consists of all the senior leadership, to oversee strategy, and formulate and approve policies. Our guiding principle has always been to balance between protecting the health of our community and minimizing disruptions to it. Every policy decision has been thoroughly debated and carefully considered.

I am genuinely heartened by the professionalism and dedication of these two groups, and everybody else who are involved: the community volunteers, the frontline health, safety and security staff, the staff who have been hard at work to put our laboratories into what I call “orderly hibernation”, the faculty members and TKS teachers who have moved all of their courses online, and also the students who have accommodated this sudden transition, and finally our Board members who have offered their help and advice. 

I want to thank you all personally. Many of you have made personal sacrifices, all with the uncertainty of not knowing when this crisis is going to end. But please take comfort in that each personal sacrifice you have made will benefit the greater good of the KAUST community!

Yet, despite these efforts, experience elsewhere indicates that the worst is probably still to come, and we cannot let our guard down. The virus has forced us to change our lifelong habits, to embrace new concepts like social distancing, remote working, and to accept isolation from our loved ones and from the work that is our passion. To some degree, our lives have been put on hold and instead, we have all been asked to step up to this unprecedented challenge. If you feel anxious about this, that’s ok because you are not alone. We all are. 

Being proactive is one of the best ways to deal with anxiety. Eat and sleep well, observe social distancing, wash your hands frequently, do not travel and avoid crowds, and conduct as much of your daily routine online as possible. But do go outdoors and exercise from time to time. Be optimistic and stay mentally healthy as well.

That’s exactly what I have done myself. For this past week, I have “Zoom’ed in” for most of my meetings, cancelled all my international and domestic travel, and have been working at home. I do play an occasional game of tennis and golf, two sports that are ideal from a social distancing perspective! I have not gone out of campus for the past two weeks!

But it is not all doom and gloom. Let’s turn this curse into an opportunity.

One opportunity is that our forced change of lifestyle should allow us to see our family much more. When I go around campus, I see many families taking walks, riding bikes etc.  

The global nature of the crisis also forces many of us to connect more with friends and family scattered around the world. It also reinforces the notion that every individual on this earth is facing this crisis together, and that we should help each other to tackle this common enemy. 

As one example, we, at KAUST, have been sharing policies and solutions with universities around the world—learning from each other’s best practices. I hope this will continue after the crisis is over.

We also have another opportunity, even an obligation, as a university of science and technology, to try to make our contributions to tackle this global crisis. I believe that science has a central role to play in this.

I am reminded of the legend of Sir Isaac Newton discovering the law of gravity, the theories of optics, and developing calculus, all while he was “home quarantined” during the Bubonic Plague.  

I encourage our research community to dig deep into their areas of scientific expertise and make use of this time to find opportunities to develop knowledge, tools, solutions, and even cures for the virus. We already have a number of faculty members who have done exactly this. If their work turns out to be successful, KAUST will be making a valuable contribution not only to the Kingdom but to the world. But I am proud of them for simply taking up the challenge.

Finally, let me say that COVID-19 will pass and we will soon look back at 2020 as a unique year, a year when our lives were disrupted and our values challenged. This is a test for us all - for us individually and as a community, for this university and for the global scientific community that KAUST is a part of.

Yes, we must come together as a global community and we must protect ourselves from this unprecedented threat but I also hope we can seize this opportunity to improve our collective wellbeing beyond the crisis. 

I will finish by sharing a simple hope. My hope is that this new ‘social distancing’ is actually bringing us together again, that the spirit of community - whether it be our KAUST community, the global scientific community or even the global community at large, will stay with us long after COVID-19 and that we will remember 2020 as the year we embraced the idea that we are always stronger together!

Thank you and take care.

Tony F. Chan
KAUST President