As we struggle beside our people to overcome the threat of COVID-19, we are heartened that we have the skills, the talent and the robustness to build an even better university for the future.
The UWI's response to the COVID-19 pandemic was swift and timely. It is an unprecedented event that brought disruption, panic and fear to all nations. The vulnerable Caribbean has not been exempt, but The UWI, with its proud tradition of service and leadership, has risen to the cause.
Initially, of primary concern at the end of 2019 were our 36 students in Suzhou China, enrolled in the BSc Software Engineering programme at UWI-China Institute of Information Technology (UWICIIT) and our administrative staff deployed to assist our students. The UWI worked closely with our partner institution, the Global Institute of Software Technology and local authorities to ensure the safety and wellbeing of students and staff, while also staying in contact with and updating parents and guardians in the Caribbean.
By February 2019, The UWI launched a task force to combat the growing public health threat, similar to the one established during the Zika outbreak four years ago. It was chaired by Professor Clive Landis, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Undergraduate Studies and former Director of the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre, who has considerable experience in the field of Caribbean public health. The UWI COVID-19 Task Force comprises a regional team of 20 persons, mobilised to leverage the University's knowledge and expertise to assist the Caribbean in its readiness and response to the virus outbreak, and is committed to providing clear and accurate information, sharing its research with stakeholders across the region. Membership was drawn from UWI campuses, comprising scientists, researchers and public health professionals with expertise in virology, epidemiology, laboratory diagnostics, critical care, respiratory medicine, pulmonology, health leadership, emergency medicine, veterinary medicine, mental health, public health, clinical psychology and counselling, tourism, trade, international relations, public education, youth advocacy, gender, ethics, and communication, among other areas.
Looking ahead, a new taskforce has also been convened to consider the Post-COVID impact; it has been dubbed the “Imagining the Future 2021 Taskforce”.
The novel Coronavirus was the subject of four Vice- Chancellor's Forums hosted by The UWI. The first, called “Demystifying the Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)”, took the form of a panel discussion and livestreamed Q&A format. Audiences heard presentations by Professor Christine Carrington, Molecular Genetics and Virology Expert at The St. Augustine Campus; Dr. Sandra Jackson, Department of Microbiology at The Mona Campus; Dr. Joy St. John, Executive Director of CARPHA; Dr. Roshan Parasram, Chief Medical Officer for Trinidad and Tobago; and Professor Landis. It was chaired by Pro Vice- Chancellor Global Affairs and Professor of Practice at The UWI, Ambassador Dr. Richard Bernal.
The second forum was called “Partnering in the Caribbean's Response” and took place on March 9. It included two panel discussions on Preparedness and Economic Impact, featuring UWI academics, and experts from regional agencies and government ministries. They included Dr. Michelle McLeod, Director at the Centre for Hotel and Tourism Management at The UWI; Senator Lisa Cummins, Executive Director of UWI Lumin Consulting; Dr. Don Marshall, Director of SALISES; Mr. Ronald Jackson, Executive Director, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA); and Dr. Justin Ram, Director of Economics at the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).
The third forum was held virtually, in keeping with social distancing protocols put in place by that time. It was themed “Sickness, Science, and Sovereignty: Caribbean Unity or Plurality” and took place on March 20. Speakers included Dr. Douglas Slater, CARICOM Assistant Secretary-General, Human and Social Development; Dr. W. Warren Smith, President, Caribbean Development Bank; Dr. Joy St. John, Executive Director, Caribbean Public Health Agency; Ambassador Dr. June Soomer, Secretary General, Association of Caribbean States; and Professor Clive Landis.
As the global count of COVID-19 cases approaches 3 million, the virus pandemic seems to be a disease that is dividing us by demographics and affecting some groups more than others. Underlying health issues, socioeconomic inequality, downright poverty and discrimination are among the factors that have been highlighted in all conversations about the high infection and death rates of ethnic minorities, especially Indigenous Peoples, Africans/people of African descent. The fourth, brought together a panel of regional and international experts in another virtual setting, on April 27, to examine why some racial groups and socio-economic classes are more vulnerable than others and what strategies are key to interrupting this worrying trend.
The UWI has also been actively present in other events, such as a presentation made by Professor Ian Hambleton of the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre to CARICOM's Special Emergency Meeting of Heads of Government on modelling the virus' mobility, country by country.
This valuable scientific work adds to the outstanding contributions being made every day by 'UWI Science' in policy fora, complementing 'UWI Medicine' at the region's hospitals, clinics, and COVID-19 centres.
The UWI moved rapidly to transition courses and programmes to online delivery, ensuring continued Access for our people, Alignment with the needs of society in this time of crisis, and Agility in our response.
The UWI Executive Management Team decided that the business of The UWI must go on, while in full compliance with the public health policies of our governments. Both academic and administrative staff transitioned to working from home, ensuring that the business of the University continues.
In a historic moment, The UWI delivered the inaugural meeting of the Five Islands' Campus Council online within the context of the State of Emergency and 24- hour public health curfew in Antigua and Barbuda. It was “UWI solidarity” in the worst of times.
The UWI's core business and mission-critical meetings such as those of the Campus Council, the University Grants Committee, and the University Council meeting also continued in this vein.
The swift transformation to online delivery of classes was made possible by more than a decade of realignment towards a technologically-enabled future, starting with the formation of the Open Campus in 2008. All campuses have been able to move to multi-mode delivery, with more than 90% of our courses now having online content and delivery. Systems to facilitate examinations and assessments have also been agreed upon to ensure the successful completion of the academic year.
As we struggle beside our people to overcome the threat of COVID-19, we are heartened that we have the skills, the talent and the robustness to build an even better university for the future. We continue to support our regional political leaders in their management and containment policies, through multifaceted engagement and participation.