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The university reacts according to its nature. In the way it articulates knowledge, welcomes and trains citizens, the university reminds us all that crises should not be fought with ignorance or populism, but with knowledge and solidarity

By Joao Carlos Salles*

We live in extreme uncertainty. Pain, death and suffering now suppress routines, projects, breaths. And fear is not just individual, it does not just stem from the feeling of our unavoidable finitude. With the pandemic, pre-existing social and political difficulties, the precarious condition of the majority of our people and the insufficient presence of the state, especially where it is most needed, now imply an immediate risk of death for a large number of people. And, in recent years, as a result of neoliberal policies that undermine public services and, in particular, an unprecedented obscurantist attack on science, culture, and the arts, Brazilian society seems to have developed a rare and dangerous kind of comorbidity. Neoliberalism and obscurantism have together sucked substantive energies from the social body, from where, in conjunction with government action, essential responses emerge: the unified health system and universities.

Scientific knowledge and the army of researchers and professionals now engaged are now in actions and environments that value the collective and choose life unconditionally; thus collaborating towards a solution aimed at the common interest, but also towards the subsequent replenishment of strategic energies in society, public health and education. If such institutional energies are not replenished, if we are not able to invest decisively in strengthening them, our ability to face future crises will be greatly compromised. And, unfortunately, this pandemic, with its destructive force, will not be the last; and we cannot afford to exit the current crisis without being better prepared for even scarier future scenarios.

Today, by the way, even those who have attacked the universality and public status of the SUS wear their vest, which is a minimal demonstration of common sense. The importance of SUS is unequivocal, as has been the importance of the NHS in the United Kingdom. However, this pandemic is also faced with great vigor by universities — and this in many ways, which all remind us of the absurdity of reducing public funding for research and institutions, in all areas of knowledge. Indeed, universities allow for a truly rich understanding of the multiple dimensions of the pandemic, even challenging us to think about our social reality, our history and, finally, our common future. It has, in fact, become commonplace to say that we will not be the same after the pandemic. However, we can, even touched by new technologies, modified by such suffering, globalized now in immense pain, apparently change everything just to remain with the same vices of centuries. If the epidemic does not respect, individually, social class, gender, race; if social markers, after all, do not matter for illness as the sum of individual episodes, our responses to the pandemic never ignore these markers and, if we do not act appropriately, will tend to reproduce death and suffering very unevenly. 

Questions like these are part of a consistent and multidisciplinary academic reflection. No institution is as prepared as the university to read the signs of structural inequality. And, not by chance, the first data already show us a higher number of deaths in blacks, who accumulate more comorbidities and less access to treatment. The marks of history are not easily erased in our country, and there is a great risk that the legacy of the pandemic, in our political, economic and social environment, will be even more authoritarian and not a legitimate authority. An example of legitimate authority, to which we mortgage trust and grant credibility, would be that exercised by doctors or scientists in the competent exercise of their profession, even when they lead us to opt for painful treatments that may go against the inclinations of the body and spirit. However, without due appreciation to the universities, we can be forced or induced to solutions motivated not by scientific reasons, but rather induced by fear and motivated deep down by political and economic interests, which now prefer, to the cure and protection of our people, some more or less radical form of social Darwinism. 

One of the side effects of crisis situations is the moderation of hypocrisy. Interests leap to the eye and, with the greatest shamelessness, authorities open their hearts or viscera, allowing themselves to say what they think, or rather, expressing impoverished measures of their intelligence, their simulacra of thought. This is what we see when they try to replace the dimension of morality with a calculation of profits, in which, as has been said, life would not have infinite value. Life, which would be the measure of other values, enters the calculation and is thus priced in simply acceptable amounts. Such moral impoverishment is glaring and frightening.

We learned from Émile Durkheim that, without involving a decision, society would lead to voluntary death, to suicide, a determined rate of individuals, since this varies, in an explainable and sui generis, as a social factor due to other social causes. In a way, it is as if the collective conscience, located beyond the sum of individuals, accepted a certain rate as normal and even socially necessary. This is not, however, the current situation. We have a public and conscious confrontation with death. We have the data, the numbers, the projections. Finally, it is within our power not to repeat the proposal of leaving the masses to the devil and statistics. Yes, as an organized society, as a State, as a government, we can decide for the greatest possible reduction in the number of individuals who, unfortunately, will be led to the most involuntary death. Here, uncontrollable collective forces are at work, but planning, which, if successful, if it mobilizes the best of our collective will, will only fail to prevent the really inevitable. And yet, we have a scenario of a perfect storm, of confusion, chaos, irresponsibility. A chaos planted by current and previous political and economic decisions, by a crisis of legitimacy, by a split in power, by bipolar orientations, which took away from us before or now deprive us of the material means to fight the pandemic and the moral condition to refuse to trivialization of life and its subordination, to the wide open, to immediate projects of power.

Life is non-negotiable, and not a commodity to be relativized according to political or economic interests. Furthermore, life is not just an individual project, but a long-term collective project. Otherwise, we live on the prowl for barbarism, with the risk of, in an instant, discovering in ourselves the barbarians we feared or expected. This is how the university, another long-term collective project, now helps us to better understand even this simple sentence: Stay at home! Yes, don't follow ignorance, nor the ignorant: Stay at Home! 

First, the university helps locate this prescription in a set of sanitary measures that make sense as a collective policy, associating a local decision with an accumulated scientific experience. Then, it shows how such measures depend on the various meanings of 'home', since, in our country, millions of homes suffer from a deep and historic deficit in sanitation, minimum living conditions, extreme poverty, aggravating the suffering of isolation necessary, which, therefore, to be fulfilled, requires decisive support from the State. The university will not fail to remember that a sentence like this, said in the imperative, can result from convincing, clarification and information, but it can be an imposition, a violent order, the result of little credibility from the state and little social league. It even reminds us that the distinction between home and street is relative in our country, also depending on culture and, therefore, a health policy finds its place in the midst of unique sociological and anthropological conditions. Finally, in the context in which the sentence is raised by the threat of death, it is even worth remembering that the very value of life and the finitude of human existence require literary or philosophical reflection. 

The university reacts, therefore, according to its nature. In the way it articulates knowledge, welcomes and trains citizens, the university reminds us all that crises should not be fought with ignorance or populism, but with knowledge and solidarity. In an intimate way, our institutions realize intellectual and moral virtues, which, therefore, installed in ourselves, must reciprocally contaminate each other, so that knowledge is not merely instrumental nor solidarity a mere philanthropic intention. 

This will not be our last health, humanitarian or ecological crisis. If technologies today make us perceive their gravity and extent in a different way, technologies alone will not be redeeming. We will be more technological, no doubt, but society will not suffer remotely. It is necessary to think about the legacy of this crisis, so that society does not return to austerity policies that deprived it of exactly the best conditions for a faster response to threats. The legacy of the crisis cannot, therefore, be that of selective austerity, which, once the storm has passed, sacrifices the university system even more radically. That our university, as a place of confrontation between knowledges, as a space for conviviality, from where multiple formations capable of understanding and facing the different crises depart, is not reduced in its scope and in effective investment and, therefore, does not renounce the university and research. May the lack of literacy and contempt for culture not shape the policy for education in our country, and opportunistic bacteria not take advantage of the action of the new coronavirus to make their old projects of dismantling the public university prevail, of attacking the “parasites” servers public. 

Called to combat, universities are present, in the most diverse and serious actions. As public institutions, they value and honor the dialogue with government bodies that fulfill their institutional obligation and do not prefer ideological warfare, which is also symptomatic of some intellectual starvation. Despite the previous difficulties, despite the inexplicable and undiagnosed cuts in grants, due to the limited view of some managers, they make use of the current allocation of resources to face the crisis in the best possible way and seriously dialogue with ministerial instances. That, therefore, after the crisis, the responsible orientation prevails and not the precarious and almost anecdotal raptures of those who seem to take a special pleasure in demonstrating their horror for knowledge or democracy

*Joao Carlos Salles he is dean of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) and president of the National Association of Directors of Federal Institutions of Higher Education (Andifes).

Article originally published in Agência Bori

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