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Opinion | Together against COVID – 19: Are the public universities leading from behind?

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) presents a formidable challenge and a question of existentiality to humankind regardless of race, gender, faith or geographical location. Worldwide, the health sector is taking an unprecedented agile leadership and commensurate efforts in fighting the global pandemic using available knowledge and material resources.

However, the WHO and health sectors in various countries are not fighting the virus alone. In China where the virus originated, both public and private universities are in the frontline by turning their laboratories into national testing centers, providing relevant expertise as well as conducting quick impact research to scale up knowledge and bridge the existing gap about the disease. Students are doing campaign against the spread of the virus by raising awareness about the World Health Organization’s guiding principles – social distancing, frequent hand washing with soap and running water, cough through flexed elbow, avoid shaking hands and close contacts.

 In the United Kingdom and most of the European countries, university academics and medical students voluntarily joined National Health Service (NHS) to provide the needed human resources as well as technical know-how to suppress the spread of the COVID-19.  Academics in the UK launched #WeAreTogether campaign to garner nation wide solidarity against the virus, hoping to stop the spread of the disease as soon as possible.

The voice of the universities in the UK revealed that “the university sector is carrying out vital medical research into a possible vaccine; providing much-needed equipment, facilities and extra staff to frontline NHS services; and is exploring ways to support the people’s health and wellbeing through this difficult time.” This is exactly the key role of an academic institution during such critical times of pain and unease.

In the United States of America, universities and medical centers are playing enormous roles especially in tracking COVID-19 cases, pioneering drugs development, conducting clinical trials and giving accurate and authentic information to the public about preventive measures. For instance, John Hopkins University has created an online platform to track global cases of the virus on city by city bases. This tracking of cases is extended to other countries globally. Washington Medical Centre, John Hopkins and Stamford Universities conduct about 1,500 tests for COVID – 19 a day, relieving a huge burden from state authorities. New York and Tufts Universities turned their student dormitories to COVID-19 admission facilities. So, in the USA, academic and medical schools are handling the bull by its own horns, taking the war to the headquarters of the coronavirus wherever it is! If the US overcome the pandemic, universities will account for a lion’s share of success.

In Egypt, Kenya and South Africa, institutions of higher learning play crucial role in the fight against COVID-19.  They have provided needed capacity to response to the COVID 19 threat, sensitize communities and prepare some form of continuing learning during and after lockdown. The campus world is highly sensitized and students access information at ease to help them and their families cope with the effects of COVID-19.

For South Sudan, the story is different. Only university of Juba has established a COVID-19 emergency response committee capable of giving worthwhile information and advice to students, parents, government and the public. The vibrant committee includes membership of top-notch professors with established links to other distinguish researchers worldwide. These links are important in sharing information and knowledge to tame the spread of the COVID -19 and other diseases. Apart from university of Juba, other public universities are simply leading from behind and waiting updates from the national task force for COVID -19. In fact, South Sudan universities are ill-equipped and act primarily as theory centers. There are no conducive labs which the COVID-19 task force could call into use just in case of COVID -19 outbreak. The universities are not prepared enough to handle such public health threat. Universities are not conducting public awareness campaigns, not conducting basic research about social behaviors and how these might escalate spread of COVID -19. The government can not seek advice from academics to help in making evidence-based decisions.

So, what must our universities do against COVID -19? Can we learn a thing or two from universities in the US, UK, China and other African counties? Is it too late to extend community service during this critical time? Is the government to blame for a sorry state of affairs in public universities?

For now, and in future, university leaderships need to rethink community service strategies and priorities. In modern times, a university is central to national civility, tolerance and self-worth for every citizen. This is done through teaching, research and providing community service. At least each academic is employed to contribute towards educating students, conducting research to create knowledge in specific specialty as well as contributing to the community’s growth through community service. The fight against COVID -19 requires collective efforts in raising awareness to the public and conduct research if possible, to expose the unknow aspects of the virus. Universities should encourage their staff and students to take lead in raising awareness through radio debates and social media in conformity with WHO’s guidelines and government restrictions.   

Universities should work synergistically with the national and state governments towards achieving national strategic development goals especially good health and wellbeing for all which is currently being threatened by the COVID -19. “Two heads are better than one” is an idiom we all know! It matters generally at the time we need each other than before. The COVID – 19 presents a formidable challenge of human existentiality and it is up to us to act swiftly and collectively. Having a network of universities to share information and garner synergies could contribute immensely in stopping the spread of the virus. 

Conclusively, public universities should not surrender their stewardship in building knowledge base communities, strengthening innovation, waging war against diseases where guns and bullets are simply irrelevant and adventuring to an unknown world to create knowledge and challenge assumptions. Universities should not lead from behind but be the drivers of the fight against COVID -19 and any other public health or social threat. 

David Malual Wuor Kuany (M.A) lives in Bor town and is one of the South Sudanese academics who write extensively about higher education. This article absolutely reflects his opinion and not for the institution he works for. He can be reached at or

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