"You can make a difference!"
Neuruppin, 01. April 2020
Dear students, and first-semester students in particular,
a warm welcome to all of you on behalf of the department.
It is part of the MHB mindset to do something new, and to reconsider what we are doing. Not long ago it was new for us to welcome first-semester students of medicine and psychology. And those who were here know how we celebrated these occasions.
This time, the new thing is that we cannot have a big official event in Neuruppin, nor a party into the night… We do hope that we can still do that at a later date, but it will not be the same thing. Normally, a new stage in life and in education starts with meeting new people and settling into a new community; now your start must feel like a correspondence course, an impersonal and distanced state of affairs and exactly the opposite of what the MHB stands for.
Getting closer in spirit
But we do our best to live up to our self-concept: trying out new formats of teaching, and turning the decentralised structure of our university into an asset. In this process, many of us get closer in spirit although we have not met in person for weeks.
We will do our utmost to provide you with as much as possible from the regular curriculum during the period without class attendance. We will use various virtual and electronic formats of instruction to facilitate your attendance even if not everybody can join a video conference. But we are going to use digital formats such as live chats and video conferences for discussions and group work.
This is an unprecedented situation for all of us, and directly relating to the disciplines of your choice: a pandemic that is fast spreading around the globe and may overtax health systems everywhere, and the resulting collective mental distress; from both perspectives, an exceptional state on a hitherto unknown scale.
"Natural disaster in slow motion"
Today nobody knows how long this state of emergency is going to last. A return to normality after the Easter holidays is highly unlikely. We may have to live with this “natural disaster in slow motion” for months to come. Looking out of the window, the world appears more or less normal, but also very strange. What we feel and do is different, streets are almost empty everywhere. An invisible threat hangs over us that for most is not more serious than a severe cold; but intensive wards worldwide are overburdened, and people die for lack of respiratory equipment.
This exceptional state changes our lives and our societies, now and for a long time to come. How many are going to die before the pandemic dies down? Will it disappear, will it become a nuisance but harmless, or will we have to live with it in the long term? When will the economy be back on course – soon after the current wave, or will it take years? When will we be able to resume our accustomed open and free life style, go to parties, concerts and exhibitions, visit cafés, open-air pools and beer gardens, or travel? Will we meet our relatives and friends again whom we cannot visit for the time being? In a few months, such questions may seem exaggerated – or presumptuous.
Crises show us who we are
But answers to such questions will have an impact on how society changes. Will those be silenced who promise quick and simple but false solutions, because only truth helps to solve problems? Or will they gain further ground because our world has become even more complicated, and the need for simple answers even greater?
Will the crisis teach us solidarity with the most vulnerable, will even those stay at home who believe they have nothing to fear? Or will physical distancing result in a new trend of social distancing? Will economic standstill demonstrate how good life can be without hyper consumption and accelerated growth, will it open ways out of the climate crisis? Or will we, after a few months, start consuming more than ever and again believe that ecology is nice to have but not really that important?
Crises show us who we really are. The word crisis derives from the Greek κριτειν – which describes a difference. Do we follow our instincts and start stockpiling toilet paper because this is what our neighbour does? Or do we follow our conscience like Li Wenliang, eye doctor in Wuhan, who was among the first to identify and name the new infectious disease and paid a high price: first he was severely reprimanded by the communist government, and then he died from the disease.
Do we stand up for what we think is right, although this can be inconvenient? Or do we choose the easy way out? And how do we distinguish one from the other? Is it correct to wear face masks all the time in public to protect ourselves and others, or should we leave the scarce supplies to those who really need them? Is it correct to stay safely at home to reduce the danger of infection, or is it better to go out and offer help where help is needed?
You are among those who can make a difference!
Answers can change from one day to the next. Recommendations by experts and those in government are valuable. But in questions of conscience we are on our own. Mankind has always been looking for heroes. In our times, true heroism is not revealed in spectacular isolated acts but in the ways we deal with matters of conscience.
This is an opportunity to appreciate not only heroes like Li Wenliang but the many everyday heroes who faithfully do their job, whether they receive applause from people at their windows or not. Who would have believed that people from the lower end of the wage scale become everyday heroes, such as supermarket cashiers and delivery drivers?
My impression is that most of you have an idea how to answer these questions. My thanks, also on behalf of the MHB, go to the more than 150 MHB students who offered their services as volunteers before the summer term started.
It will depend on all of us how the world will overcome this crisis, and what it will look like afterwards. Currently, most governments have given priority to protecting lives over prosperity and economic growth, and most of us believe this to be obvious and morally right.
We have a say in deciding whether we overcome this crisis with integrity and whether our society will continue to prioritise the protection of life, of the weakest, and of the fundamentals of life. This must happen in a global context, just as the pandemic is global.
The start of this semester, specifically for the newcomers, is not what you expected, but it is nevertheless a very special moment. In these times of crisis, you are among those who can make a difference. Take the right decisions! Take care of yourselves and those around you!
And once again, although it may take a while to meet you in person: welcome at the MHB!
P. Markus Deckert
Dean, Departments of Medicine and Psychology