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21 March 2020

Solidarity in Action – the global Rhodes community and Coronavirus

The Warden of Rhodes House, Dr Elizabeth Kiss, sent this message to the Rhodes community which profiles some of those who are actively involved in the Coronavirus pandemic, and offers support and inspiration for these unprecedented times.

Dear Rhodes Scholars and friends,

Warmest greetings to all of you from Rhodes House!  We know that every member of our 5000-strong global community is feeling the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic in your personal and professional lives. We send love and healing thoughts to any amongst you who are unwell or caring for others who are ill.  All of us, as people accustomed to goal-setting and problem-solving, are struggling to adjust to what one of our current Scholars called “The Great Unplanning.”   So whether you are co-working with your kids, scrambling to move your courses online, revising your company’s business plan, rethinking your city’s or country’s policies, or adapting in a myriad of other ways to our new reality, you have our heartfelt wishes for good health and resilience.  

It is heartening to see the power of our network and the many ways you are fighting the world’s fight in these challenging times.  Every day brings stories of acts of solidarity, of caring and resilient leadership, and of concern for those most vulnerable.  I am proud of all the members of our Fellowship of Fellowships who are working on the front lines as doctors, public health professionals and scientists, those who are developing policy responses to our global health and economic crisis and those engaging in public advocacy to protect the most vulnerable.  Here is a sample of our network in action:

  • More than 450 Atlantic Fellows and 100 staff from 64 countries and 7 different global programs are working with underserved populations in almost every corner of the world, with over half in community health and healthcare.  The Atlantic Institute and the Executive Directors of the seven global programs are providing both solidarity and practical tools.  Fellows are being supported via Zoom to share experiences, strategies and support across the miles, whether they are in rural Sierra Leone, in a South African township, in Washington DC or in an indigenous community in Australia;
  • Professor S.S. Vasan (India & Trinity 1998) is leading the CSIRO Dangerous Pathogens Team in Melbourne Australia, the first team outside of China to recreate the virus, now collaborating with colleagues around the world to develop a vaccine;
  • Sir John Bell (Alberta & Magdalen 1975) Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, is leading efforts at the U.K. Department of Health to expand diagnostic testing.  He is also working with the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust on vaccine candidates and therapies and trying to procure ventilators for the National Health Service;
  • Dr Pardis Sabeti (Florida & New College 1997) and Dr Marc Lipsitch (Georgia & Merton 1992) are part of the Greater Boston Consortium for Pathogen Readiness, working closely with the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health led by Dr Zhong Nanshan, the distinguished Chinese physician-scientist who spearheaded the response to the SARS epidemic in 2002.  Both Pardis and Marc participated in a recent medical Grand Rounds about Coronavirus that can be viewed here. Dr Sabeti’s lab, along with others at the Broad Institute directed by Eric Lander (New York & Wolfson 1978) is also providing open access to research protocols and design resources for the use of CRISPR technology to aid in Coronavirus detection;
  • Jared Dunnmon (Ohio & Oriel 2011) and Jiaxin Zhao (China & Green Templeton 2019)are working to connect teams at Stanford University and Tsinghua University to develop rapid Coronavirus testing systems using chest X-rays and machine learning;
  • 2019 Schmidt Science Fellow Dr Saki Takahashi is working in a group at UCSF which has refocused its efforts to test a representative population in the San Francisco area for Covid-19 antibodies to help further our understanding about infection rates among different age groups;
  • Dr Julie Levison (Pennsylvania & Wadham 1998) is working to promote resilience among front-line healthcare workers;
  • Chrystia Freeland (Prairies & St Antony's 1991) Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, is overseeing Canada’s Coronavirus response;
  • Dr Nigel Clarke (Jamaica & Linacre 1994),  Jamaica’s Minister of Finance, recently announced the largest stimulus package in the country’s history in response to Coronavirus and facilitated an agreement by the banking sector to forego an agreed-upon tax reduction to free up resources for those most vulnerable;
  • Xilin Jiang (China & University 2017) shared his analysis of predictive outbreak models in a blog that received over a million views and 20,000 comments.  He is now working with China’s public health agency and the Gates Foundation to evaluate China’s disease containment measures;
  • Prof Devi Sridhar (Florida and Wolfson 2003), Professor of Global Health in Edinburgh, is advocating widespread testing in Scotland;
  • Lindsay Lee (Tennessee & Wadham 2014), Technical Officer at the World Health Organisation, participated in a WHO webinar on supporting people with disabilities during the Coronavirus pandemic;
  • Dr Leana Wen (Missouri & Merton 2007), former Health Commissioner for the City of Baltimore, has appeared on television to offer clear practical health advice to the general public;
  • And as in every crisis, we know that many members of the Rhodes Community are also working in quiet and unsung ways to keep our societies running and being of service to others: be it as educators, as caregivers or as artists bringing joy and beauty in this uncertain times.

I want especially to recognise our Chinese Rhodes Scholars, who have stepped up in lovely ways, drawing on their experience over the past months to offer thoughtful advice to their fellow students.  Eight of our Chinese Scholars have used their personal funds to procure N95 masks for the most vulnerable members of our community.

Even as Coronavirus is closing borders and grounding airplanes, close collaboration across borders will be required to save lives and protect communities.  It is inspiring to see our Scholars and Fellows leading the way.

If you are engaged in Coronavirus-related research, treatment, public policy, or advocacy, or know of other Scholars or Fellows doing this work, please let our Director of Communications, Babette Littlemore know. We hope to track these efforts across our network and promote people’s ability to connect, collaborate and support one another.

Here in Oxford, we are working hard to keep our Scholars and staff safe.  We have cancelled or postponed all Scholar gatherings at Rhodes House through the end of April, including the First-Year Character, Service and Leadership Retreat, and have made it possible for all Rhodes House staff to work from home.   We are reaching out to current Scholars and Scholars-Elect to offer support and advice and to respond, in so far as we can, to individual hardship or vulnerability. Whilst many Scholars are back home with family, around half the community remains in Oxford.  We are moved daily by the stories we hear of Scholars supporting one another and finding innovative ways to stay connected despite the ‘social’ distance.  The University of Oxford has announced it will move instruction online for Trinity Term and replace traditional exams with alternative forms of assessment.  In the coming weeks, as the impact of these changes becomes clearer, we will develop policies for the provision of additional support to enable Scholars to complete their degrees.

We are also postponing all Rhodes Trust-sponsored events around the world through the end of April.  This includes Welcome Home Weekend and Rhodes alumni events in the United States, Canada, the UK, and Malaysia as well as the North American leg of the Bob and Dawn Wyllie World Tour.   Our Australian alumni association has also postponed the Australian National Dinner.  Because of current uncertainties and the long lead-time required for planning, we are postponing the inaugural Technology & Society Forum originally scheduled for 20-21 June.  We will update you as soon as possible regarding other events scheduled for May,  June and beyond. 

I am happy to report that Bob and Dawn are safely home in Oxford after their fabulous visits with Rhodes alumni in South Africa and Australia.  Please check out photos and updates on their travels on their bespoke website.  We look forward to rescheduling the North American leg of their tour as soon as it is safe to do so.

Whilst is it extremely disappointing to have to cancel face-to-face events that many of us were keenly awaiting, we are committed to using this as an opportunity to innovate, using digital tools to work, learn and connect.  For instance, we will conduct interviews virtually for our next class of Schmidt Science Fellows and for the Executive Director of Rise.  We are also thinking of ways to bring our community closer together through virtual convenings and Rhodes Scholars Talks to share experiences, knowledge or just have social interactions! If you have ideas on how to conduct these, or would like to initiate one, please email our Director of Global Engagement and Programmes, Rodolfo Lara.

In the slipstream of Coronavirus is social isolation and loneliness.  I encourage all of us to find ways to connect with others more, not less, to take a moment to count our blessings and to provide support to those more vulnerable.  We are not all scientists, medics, or public officials on the front line, but as a global community we can be kind to others and ourselves.  Professor Ian Robertson of the Atlantic Program for Global Brain Health offers some wise counsel for resilience in the face of the pandemic in this Atlantic Institute interview.

For those eager for some Coronavirus-free intellectual stimulation, we suggest engaging with some of our digital content on a wide range of topics. You can listen to our thought-provoking podcasts on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. There is also video content available from previous Rhodes House Forums, events and our RhodesAhead thought leadership series on YouTube.  For those wanting to retreat into a good book instead, I encourage you to peruse our virtual Rhodes House bookshelf.

Finally, at a time when so many organisations are facing existential economic challenges, we are immensely fortunate that the Rhodes Trust is in sound financial shape.  Our endowment, supplemented by our annual Scholars Fund, and financial contributions from our partnerships, gives us sufficient resources to cover our operating expenses.   Over the past year our Trustees created a Rainy Day Fund designed to protect the Trust’s assets in the event of a market downturn.  Their prescient action to create this Fund will enable us to cover our core operating expenses for a number of  years without having to sell depreciated equities, giving our endowment time to recover.

What made this financial strategy possible is all of you who are benefactors to the Trust.  I am deeply grateful to all those whose generosity past and present enables us to support our Scholars today and tomorrow.

Finally, let us all remember that the Rhodes Trust has weathered two World Wars, pandemics, and economic crises - and that the University of Oxford has endured for nearly 1000 years.  In tough times, it is more important than ever to pursue our mission to develop compassionate, innovative, and public-spirited people committed to solving humanity’s challenges.



Dr Elizabeth Kiss
Warden & CEO of Rhodes House

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