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17 November 2020

Speech for 17 November 2020

Dear colleagues, dear students,

For the rector of Charles University, there are not many more significant moments and occasions on which to speak to members of the academic community than today, the 17th of November. The 17th is International Students Day and also marks the struggle for democracy, dedicated to the basic tenets upon which the free state is based; this fight was often not easy and unfortunately was not without suffering and loss. This fateful day is associated with the tragic events of the autumn of 1939, which culminated in the closure of Czech universities and the deportation of students and their teachers to Nazi concentration camps. It is also a day that is associated with the Velvet Revolution and the end of totalitarianism in 1989.

This year's marking of the 17th of November is different for all of us. I am speaking to you from the empty, unusually quiet Great Hall of the Carolinum. I very much hope that, on this day next year, the Carolinum will be filled with the students and teachers who are all a part of our university. I know that I am not the only one who misses the normal operation of the uni-versity: full classrooms, discussions and debates, and meetings with friends and colleagues.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the whole country hard and changed the lives of every one of us. Unfortunately, the numbers of fellow citizens, infected and hospitalised, including those in serious condition, are still high. Healthcare workers are struggling to cope with the enormous workload, and hundreds of thousands of school pupils, university students, teachers and parents are having to adapt to distance learning. Our economy is being dealt severe blows that are affecting, and will continue to affect, the quality of our lives. Culture, tourism, artists and athletes are going through a very difficult period.

Our world has changed. It will never be the same as before, we all face unprecedented challenges that we could hardly have imagined a year ago. As a result, our responsibility to deal with the current situation is all the greater, and our society must be all the stronger and more cohesive in these critical moments. We must not give up, and we must believe in a hopeful and successful future.

Pupils in the first and second years of primary school will return to school on Thursday. Together with many of my colleagues, I firmly hope that they will be joined by more pupils and students as soon as possible. Full-time teaching is extremely important for ninth- and final-year students at secondary schools who are preparing for entrance exams, high school diplomas or final state exams. Students must also return to universities; however well we cope with it, dis-tance learning is not the be-all and end-all and is no substitute for the acquisition of many skills and knowledge. There is no substitute for personal contact between students and their teachers. The damage to the education of young people, on whom our future depends, that is, damage that is already occurring, may be irreversible. The education system is going through a major test.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has brought many sad stories into our lives. Many people have lost loved ones who died of or with Covid. I deeply sympathise with those who have been seriously affected by the viral epidemic. I believe that they will find the strength and help of their loved ones to cope with their pain, worries and traumas.

I am thinking in particular of our elderly fellow citizens, who are the most at risk in med-ical terms and who often have to face social isolation, loneliness and a seeming lack of hope. Please let us think of them all, let us show that we are with them, that we will not forget that they are an integral and important part of our society.

Single mothers, small business owners, business owners who have been building their businesses for two or three decades and now face the threat of bankruptcy, as well as their em-ployees, are also facing a very difficult situation. They all need help to overcome this difficult period to be able to focus on a better tomorrow.

In addition to grief and enormous hardship, the coronavirus pandemic has brought something else. I am talking about hope, about solidarity. The humanity that many are showing, the ability to help each other. It is these values that became apparent in our society immediately after the viral epidemic hit. The year 2020 has shown that it is not true that our civic society is dysfunctional. This spring woke society up and demonstrated its enormous strength and coher-ence in, for example, the sewing of face masks.

Enormous thanks should be given to the doctors, nurses and medical staff who have been working constantly since the spring; they don't know what a regular weekend is like, any-more. In addition, they are being aided by more and more new volunteers - first and foremost, medical and other students, not only from the medical disciplines of our universities, who, re-gardless of their work duties, have understood where they are needed.

Our thanks also go to all those who help as volunteers, whether in homes for the elderly or with teaching. Let's not forget to thank those who make sure that everything works as nor-mally as possible, that we have transport to get to work, and that we can go shopping. Not eve-ryone can work from home.

I want to thank journalists, who are also having to deal with the difficult situation. But at the same time, I would like to appeal to them. Please write with empathy, write with compas-sion, and write to motivate your viewers, listeners and readers to endure this difficult time. Do not conceal or distort unpleasant news. If possible, share positive stories in equal measure, and do not let the citizens of our country succumb to the belief that the situation is hopeless. You have great responsibility.

The 17th of November is a unique day in our modern history. It is a significant mile-stone, but also an annual occasion for reflection on how we are functioning as a society. In 1938, President Edvard Beneš said in a speech addressing young people: “The free homeland in which you were born, liberty and the independence of the state are the basis of the free devel-opment and happy life of every one of our citizens. Without it, your life would be difficult, inse-cure, politically unsuccessful, culturally worthless. It is one of the greatest values that human life has. Respect it, defend it, be resolute and fearless in defending and standing up for it, and defend it to the death!”

Do we strive for the best possible democracy and liberty, do we protect it, do we care for it? Change can always be started by an individual, but it is completed only by a community of people pulling together.

I also want to appeal to us all. Let us not be mistaken and let us not lie to ourselves, let us take our information from verified sources, let us not believe in misinformation and non-sense. Let's keep our common sense. Unfortunately, the virus, or rather the disease that has been bothering us since the spring, will probably not disappear, it will not vanish. We must find a way not to endanger one other, but we must also not stop living. We must continue to live in dignity, and not just “get by”. We certainly want to go to cultural and sporting events as soon as the situation allows.

Less than three weeks ago, without fanfare and without large gatherings and speeches, we marked 102 years of modern Czech statehood. Undoubtedly, almost all of us, though each of us in our own way, remembered our history, both on a large and a smaller scale, the moments when we could be proud of our past, and the moments about which we are today, years later, still slightly ashamed of. But such is the history of all nations, not only ours.

Modern history gives us reason for optimism: no matter how bad the times we experi-enced in the past, especially in the last century, we have always been able to overcome them in the end. This was the case with the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, after the depres-sion resulting from the Munich Agreement and the difficult, tragic years of the Protectorate. This was the case after years of Stalinist tyranny from the turn of the 1950s, as well as after years of the Normalisation period. It is this historical experience that leads me to believe that we will also deal with the consequences of our current hardships.

Dear colleagues,

In conclusion, I would like to thank all of you, the members of the academic community of Charles University, for your extraordinary efforts and for the huge amount of work you have done for our alma mater and for society as a whole. I thank you for your commitment and strength in facing these difficult conditions.

I genuinely appreciate it.

Whatever the near and distant future may bring, I am convinced that, in addition to pre-serving freedom and democracy, which are absolutely essential for us, seemingly ordinary things will be of ever greater importance: relationships with families and friends, decency, trust in the word of others, and the belief that honest work pays off.

I consider these seemingly ordinary values and ideals to be extremely important. In was on these values that the first Czechoslovak Republic under Masaryk was based. It was because of them that the students arrested in the autumn of 1939 died and were imprisoned, and it was because of these and similar values and virtues that we took to the streets on 17 November 1989, which day we commemorate today.

Let us not forget that. We must not give up, and we must believe in a hopeful future. It's more important than it seems at first glance.

I wish you all the best on this momentous day.

prof. MUDr. Tomáš Zima, DrSc., MBA

Prague, Great Hall of the Carolinum, 17 November 2020

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