Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert who became the top COVID-19 advisor to two presidents, told University of Maryland, Baltimore graduates during their commencement ceremony Thursday that they faced uncommon challenges to earn their degrees.
They should train the resilience they learned, he said, on societal ills such as racism and misinformation that were spotlighted during the coronavirus pandemic.
The graduation, UMB’s first in-person commencement since the pandemic began in 2020, was held for undergraduate and graduate students in areas including medicine, nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, social work and law.
Fauci faced a smattering of protestors outside the arena on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County but a standing ovation inside for his address.
The typically mild-mannered doctor became a lighting rod for his recommendations regarding the pandemic in the polarized politics of the United States, but Fauci mostly steered clear of such issues or addressed them obliquely in his remarks.
He and his wife, Christine Grady, a nurse and bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health, each received honorary degrees during the morning ceremony that was joyous for the achievement but tinged by the ongoing pandemic that has caused more than a million deaths the United States and fundamentally altered public life.
With the arena filled with many attendees in masks, Dr. Bruce Jarrell, the university’s president, nonetheless said it was good to see “your faces” after so many students attended classes virtually.
Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and became a familiar face in the past two years, directing the public response to COVID-19. But he’s also been at the helm of the NIH institute for decades, leading the response to waves of other diseases starting with HIV but also including H1N1 flu, Zika and Ebola.
The coronavirus, however, is something exceptional that will leave an “indelible mark on your entire generation,” he said.
“The fact that you have successfully navigated each hurdle the pandemic has put in your way, just to sit here today is a testimony to your resilience, resolve and strength of character,” he said.
His message included a plea to keep learning and seizing unanticipated opportunities. That’s what he said he did when, while settled into a research post at NIH, he read a report in 1981 about a handful of cases of an unusual pneumonia among gay men in Los Angeles. Fauci decided to focus his professional life on what would become the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic, he said, has highlighted new, pressing challenges that extend beyond the medical and need urgent and continued attention.
He urged the graduates to address “one of the great failings in our society: the lack of health equity.”
The pandemic exposed these inequities that he says undermine the physical, social, economic and emotional health of racial and ethnic minorities. Minority groups are at greater risk of getting COVID-19 because their jobs often prevent them from isolating. They also are at greater risk of hospitalization and death because of elevated rates of underlying conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
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“Very few of these conditions are racially determined,” he said. “Almost all relate to social determinants of health experienced since birth, including the limited availability of a healthful diet, substandard housing, the lack of access to health care, and tragically, the restrictions and pressures experienced to this day because of the undeniable racism that persists in our society.”
He asked the graduates not to let this “tragic reality” fade as people go about their lives.
Fauci also urged the graduates not to allow “normalization of untruths.”
He said society is increasingly “bombarded with falsehoods and lies that often stand largely unchallenged, and sadly this has led some to accept this insidious normalization of untruths.”
The dissent has been too “muted and mild.”
“I implore you, apply your abilities to analyze and examine, which you have honed here at the University of Maryland, Baltimore to discern and challenge weak assertions and to reject pronouncements built on untruths,” he said.
“As our future leaders, we are depending on you for this.”