ST. LOUIS, Missouri — Dr. Anthony Fauci received an honorary doctorate degree from Washington University during Monday morning's commencement ceremony, and looked back on lessons he learned during a global pandemic.
As the former White House chief medical adviser, Fauci was the public health official and government figurehead who steered the country through the coronavirus. To more than 3,000 graduates in the crowd, those closures interrupted their college careers and sent them into extended periods of remote learning.
"It's not really what I expected, but, you know, it made me stronger, made me more resilient," Eyoel Binyam said, adding that seeing Fauci in person was "awesome."
"Despite the profound upheaval, strains and losses caused by the historic COVID-19 pandemic, consciously or subconsciously, each of you will carry an imprint of this public health crisis that intruded upon your school education," Fauci told hundreds of graduate students at the WashU School of Medicine commencement ceremony.
In his remarks to future physicians, Fauci urged them to speak out, listen to, and engage with their critics in a push to help shape civil discourse.
"The rise of an anti-science sentiment is part of a pervasive, larger, and even more troublesome problem in our society," Fauci said.
"Beyond COVID, the normalization and acceptance of untruths and outright egregious lying threatens many other aspects of our lives -- in education, in business, in the law -- in a way that should deeply concern us all."
"I do not believe that I am being hyperbolic when I say that the normalization and casual acceptance of untruths without our fiercely pushing back can gradually lead to the erosion of the foundations of our democracy," Fauci said. "We need look no further than January 6, 2021, to validate this concern."
"You are our best hope to counter this threat to our social fabric," Fauci said. "Do not hesitate to push back on these destructive forces with civility. But also, with all the strength you can muster, as physicians with insights into evidence-based medicine, do your best to listen to doubts and concerns; and in turn, communicate with plain language and compassion to your patients, to the media, and to anyone who will listen, and explain what is known and what is not known."
Fauci applauded the speed of scientists and researchers in rushing a vaccine to the market but gave the country's public health response low marks.
"We did not do as well as we should have," he told reporters during a 20-minute press conference.
He acknowledged that the U.S. registered a death rate during the pandemic that was "about as high or higher than any other country," and said the CDC "could do a lot better in getting information in real-time out to the public health implementers."
Fauci also spoke about the importance of media literacy and urged the public to exercise some healthy skepticism and to consider the sources of information they see online, especially from random people on social media.
"The people who are spouting a distortion of truth appear to be really energetic about it," Fauci said. "The people who have the capability of spreading valid, evidence-based information, as I say somewhat tongue in cheek, usually have a day job that they need to worry about and don't spend a lot of time on social media spouting things that are egregiously untrue.
"So, what I encourage people in medical school, or people beyond professional school or college, is to don't be shy about going out there and speaking and promoting the things that are evidence-based and truthful because you've got to counter it. You can't give them an open field and surrender."
Despite his distaste for purveyors of disinformation, Fauci said his critics can often contain important information or feedback in their remarks.
"I don't demonize the people who demonize me," Fauci said. "I always look to see, 'Is there something there, some message that they have for me that I could actually learn from?'"
"Leave an open mind so that even when people criticize you in a profoundly unfair way, that there's always some kernel of -- I wouldn't say necessarily truth, but probably -- something in there that you need to listen to," Fauci said. "Because what's motivating a lot of the pushback is that people are either hurt or offended by something. You've got to ask, is that a valid point?"
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