May 27, 2021 08:27 PM

Zhang Wenhong: Division Stands in the Way of Defeating the Pandemic

Life is really full of uncertainty. I never imagined that I would get the Medal of Honor from NYU Shanghai.

There are a lot of rumors about me, and one of them is that I graduated from an American university, but I didn’t. I come from a very remote small town in Southeast China. I hope your chancellor did not invite me here because of these rumors. Actually Chancellor Tong gave me the invitation several months ago. At first, I did not accept the invitation because I was not so sure that I would be the right person to stand here to give the graduation speech.

One small story I want to tell you today is that one small thing changed my idea about [whether] to accept or not. One day, Professor Tong came to my office, and he took a portrait of me in NYU Shanghai graduate school clothes. The portrait was painted by one of the graduate students. And in that painting, I saw a different self. I was young, handsome, and upbeat. So at that moment, I liked the painting very much, and it’s still in my office. And I made the decision that I will come here to do the graduation speech today. I think it’s an honor to know that today, you brought me here — it was not just the chancellor’s idea, I think. So I really appreciate that you gave me the certainty that I can come here and give this speech, and that helped me to make the last decision.

Actually, I came from a remote town, a southern city in China, 34 years ago, to Shanghai for college. I always think about how I grew up into the person who stands here today. In my memory, I know that my hometown, years ago, actually, the name of my hometown was named “One Hundred Yue States.” In ancient China, many people migrated here, different nations migrated here in southeastern China, and the language in different villages is totally different. However, they had to communicate with each other, then there was some very ancient language that grew up there. So it looks like NYU Shanghai, I think. In ancient China, lots of people from different nations came on the same side, together, to communicate.

Just about 2,000 years ago, before China’s first unified empire, the great Qin Empire, not the Qing dynasty, was founded — before that, our land was finally incorporated into Chinese civilization. So it’s very amazing that today the China, we are a big group, people from everywhere and civilization here is merged. But amazingly, 125 years ago in 1896, the place began to introduce modern secondary school education to the small town. The students there began to learn English and math. That is the time for Qing dynasty. 125 years ago, the people there, the youth there began to learn English and math there. At that moment, Chinese education and modern education began to join together in this remote small town. I graduated from the high school there, and when I graduated 34 years ago, I wanted to go further, to see the wider world.

I went to Shanghai Medical College, which even now is a famous and prestigious medical college. Today the name is Fudan Shanghai Medical College. When I graduated, I started my career as a doctor. At that time, I made the choice for interest, but not for salary, because even now, Chinese doctors’ salaries lag far behind those of our American peers. While at the same time, those of the Chinese business elites were already very close to their American peers, including the guest speaker who was standing here last year. He is likely to earn more than most of his American peers.

So this is the question: How would you choose in the future? It shouldn’t be related to salary, I think. It should be related to your interest. This is the first experience I hope to bring to today’s graduating students: After graduation, when you find a career that suits you, you will feel it, just like me. I majored in infectious diseases, specializing in the treatment of disease caused by microorganisms which live with us together in the world, just like the coronavirus, bacteria, everything. Sometimes, disease will be caused by such microorganisms. This major is a huge privilege, as it allows me to learn the role of humans. We’re just one of the species in the world, and I can look at the world as a whole. Each time I diagnose a new disease, I can learn more deeply about nature.

Due to the ever changing [nature] of both nature and the human immune system, I feel very anxious. It’s so complicated. But I can feel that I am suitable for this job, for this task. So I think this feeling is not different from finding the right girlfriend or boyfriend. If you always feel that things are awkward in the future, I think it may not be your final suitable Miss Right or Mr. Right — I think careers are the same.

Secondly, today I will tell you that the world is full of uncertainty, just like Chancellor Tong mentioned.

However, what I would say is that every time we struggle with uncertainty, we gain the power to grow up.

So here I will mention Covid-19 last year. In January last year, our medical team dispatched four groups of doctors to assist Wuhan in fighting Covid-19. At the time, everything was full of uncertainty. We didn’t know very much about the disease at the beginning. And the initial mortality of the disease was very high. Lots of people died. It was hard to predict what the future would be like. Thus, we were afraid at first when we received the signal for help.

However, the professional honor of the doctors or nurses eventually made many of my colleagues sign up, and they boarded the train to Wuhan. They were all both ordinary doctors, and meanwhile, they were heroes. When they first went to Wuhan, the situation was very bad, but the power of teamwork finally defeated our fears and uncertainty.

I stayed in Shanghai at that time to lead the clinical team to fight the virus here. Throughout the whole process, the emergency, the normal courses of NYU Shanghai were not affected. Plenty of people appreciated my contribution to Shanghai. But I would like to say that the pandemic control in Shanghai is entirely due to the cooperation of the team. Without the team in Shanghai, it’s very hard to imagine that we would completely control the virus within 24 hours once there’s a case, and guarantee the city is running well at the same time. So this is Shanghai’s style. I think it just depended on the cooperation of the team, the CDC workers, the doctors, and everyone in this fight.

I believe that in the future we will definitely encounter greater challenges of uncertainty. Cooperation and sacrifice are still our weapons to overcome all difficulties. The spirit of cooperation and teamwork cultivated by NYU Shanghai will become the fundamental power for you to overcome all difficulties in the future.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have discussed the prevention and treatment of the disease with experts from all around the world — from the United States, Europe, and other countries. Everyone was very impressed by the effectiveness of China’s non-pharmaceutical interventions, but sometimes they will express different opinions. This is about how to make the balance between safety and individual freedom in the fight against the pandemic.

They asked me. Why do you make the decision to take the very good non-pharmaceutical interventions in the very early stage, just like face masks and social distancing. I told them that because we saw the inequality of this disease. At that time, actually, we did not know whether these measures would work or not. We just wanted to eliminate inequality. They asked me, “Which kind of inequality?” I told them that the greatest inequality caused by Covid-19 is that mortality among the elderly is 10 times that among the young. That means for the young, it’s just a big flu. But for older [people], it’s a killer. Without strict non-pharmaceutical intervention, China might be faced with hundreds of millions of infections and millions of deaths, mostly among the elderly. For this reason, most young people in China followed the government’s advice and stayed home, obeyed complete social distancing, and wore masks without enforcement. We health care experts have deep respect for the people who cooperated with these measures.

I said, “Staying at home is also fighting the virus together with us. You are fighters.” Doctors and public health experts alone cannot overcome epidemics in the face of the human disease of great inequality. In China, we just want to eliminate the inequality. Therefore, we follow the slogan, “Life first, people first.” We are filled with joy now that all the elderly here are far away from the fear of the virus.

Today, the Covid-19 epidemic is under good control in countries that have received vaccines. Seniors are beginning to return to society. The United States has started NBA games again, and nearly 20,000 people who have received vaccines have started coming to watch the games, which let us feel filled with confidence again in humans, and hope rises in science.

But science alone is not enough, I think. As you know, recently, we have landed a spacecraft on Mars, but we still cannot change the spread of poverty and infectious disease in many countries. The imbalance in vaccinations and medical supplies in different countries actually affects the ultimate global successful control of disease. Historically, global pandemic prevention and control required global collaborations. With the eradication of smallpox in 1979, the global effort against it was a highlight in the history of the World Health Organization. But today it seems it is different. At that time, despite World War Two and the Cold War, mankind won the great battle against this common enemy, the smallpox virus.

Now, more than 40 years later, Covid-19 is a global public health event that occurred at the time of great globalization. Globalization is not the cause of the pandemic. While the failure to control was due to the division of mankind, perhaps a globalized problem can only be solved through human solidarity. I believe that the future of humans depends on whether the young people of the world can finally come together.

And I think that that’s the main reason why I think New York University, Shanghai is more than any other famous university. In addition to NYU Shanghai, NYU in New York or Fudan University in Shanghai, all graduates just like you, will put your own lives into the world this year. Whether a university is great or not, I think, depends on whether its graduates can contribute to the world’s equality and development. Today comes at a time of global challenges of uncertainty. And I believe that the future of the world will be brighter because you graduated.

Thank you very much!

Zhang Wenhong is director of the infectious diseases department at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai. The article is based on his commencement speech delivered at New York University Shanghai on May 26.

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