The nation’s most well-known doctor on Monday gave advice to the latest crop of graduates at Princeton University, urging them to live fulfilling lives while also making it clear “COVID left an indelible mark on you and your entire generation.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who became the face fighting the coronavirus epidemic since 2020, didn’t mince words about the lasting effects of the pandemic as he delivered the keynote address at the school’s commencement ceremony.
“The profound ways COVID-19 has disrupted your student years are unprecedented,” Fauci said, with the Princeton University’s historic Nassau Hall in the backdrop as up to 5,000 people gathered for the first time in three years to celebrate graduates on “Class Day.” There are 1,234 members of the Class of 2022 who will graduate tomorrow.
Fauci argued the pandemic “has shone a spotlight on one of the greatest failings in our society: the lack of health equity” in the U.S. “As a physician, I feel that I must highlight this for you today,” he said.
Minorities disproportionally bore the brunt of the pandemic because they were more likely to be essential workers who couldn’t isolate themselves at home and are disproportionally at risk for underlying health issues, he said.
“Let us promise ourselves that our ‘corporate memory’ of the tragic reality of the inequities experienced with COVID-19 does not fade after we return to our new normal,” Fauci said. “It will take a decades-long commitment for society to address these disparities. I strongly urge you to be part of that commitment.”
But he also offered words of hope.
“Having said that, I am in awe of you all since each of you deserves enormous credit and respect for your extraordinary adaptability, resilience, and dedication to learning, completing your studies, and graduating despite immense difficulties and uncertainties,” he said.
Fauci first gained some national prominence in the 1980s after “an unusual pneumonia among gay men in Los Angeles” was discovered. He told the students after he graduated from medical school about a decade earlier he originally planned to pursue a “successful” and “comfortable career in investigative medicine.”
The subsequent HIV/AIDS pandemic, though, changed his course.
“I am still not sure what drove me to do this, but I decided right then and there to make an abrupt turn in the direction of my career, abandon my other research pursuits and investigate the pathogenesis of this mysterious disease,” he said. “My mentors were horrified and insisted that I was making a career-ending mistake and that this disease would amount to nothing.”
His critics, of course, were wrong.
About 700,000 people died from complications of AIDS between 1981 and 2018 in the U.S., according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. According to the World Health Organization, 35 million people died worldwide.
Fauci’s message to students was simple.
“Please believe me that you will confront the same types of unprecedented events that I have experienced, regardless of what directions your careers or lives take. And so, expect the unexpected and stay heads up for an unanticipated opportunity should it present itself,” he said. “At the end of the day, go with your own gut.”
Though he urged students to dream big and be on the lookout for opportunities that could shape others’ lives — and, in some cases, save lives — he ended his speech with a stark warning about what the future holds.
He shied away from using the words directly. But what Fauci, who has said he would step down from his position if former President Donald Trump were to win another election, sounded an alarm over fake news.
“What troubles me is that differences of opinion or ideology have in certain situations been reflected by egregious distortions of reality. Sadly, elements of our society have grown increasingly inured to a cacophony of falsehoods and lies that often stand largely unchallenged, ominously leading to an insidious acceptance of ‘what I call the ‘normalization of untruths,’” Fauci said.
“We see this happen daily … (and) if you take away nothing else from what I say today, I appeal to you, please remember this,” he said. “It is our collective responsibility not to shrug our shoulders and sink to tacit acceptance of the normalization of untruths because if we do, lies become dominant and reality is distorted.”
He added: “Then truth means nothing, integrity means nothing, and facts mean nothing.”
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Matt Arco may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewArco.