Decreasing the distance — the value of keeping close

Simone Buitendijk
University of Leeds
5 min readOct 29, 2021


After more than 18 months of the pandemic, we must guard against fear and exhaustion eroding our community spirit. Togetherness has got us this far, it’s essential we don’t lose sight of that now.

A wooden fence in front of a field with the word “together” etched into the surface.
Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire.

A little over a year ago I wrote my first ever blog entitled COVID: we can’t fix everything, and that should be OK. In it, I expressed my concern for my university community who were working so hard to try to create the experience that we felt the students deserved and would have had before COVID. I warned against subconsciously denying the harsh reality of the pandemic and wanting to make everything ‘normal’ and alright, at the expense of our own collective health and happiness.

We are now more than a year further on. It has not been easy. And university staff have worked exceptionally hard. They are exhausted from all the efforts they have put in to continue with their core work against the tidal wave of pandemic issues, lockdowns, and personal struggles. And, in spite of the success of the vaccines, the pandemic is still very much with us and will probably be for quite a while longer. The uncertainty, the not knowing how long it will take before it is all over, are very hard to take.

“We can truly say we have kept the show on the road, even if it has been a very different show than that we would have wished for.”

I am very proud of the academic and professional services staff at my university, and of the students themselves, all of whom have put in so much effort this past year to keep the learning experience and outcomes at the highest level they can be under the circumstances. They have gone above and beyond, and the results are incredibly impressive. We can truly say we have kept the show on the road, even if it has been a very different show than that we would have wished for. We have kept on teaching, in online mode, and as soon as it was possible again, face-to-face. We have kept doing research as much as we can. We have kept our campuses as COVID safe as possible, with great success. But, as we are coming out of 18 months of working against the tide, we need to take care of ourselves and each other.

We have all been through tough times. Some of us have lost loved ones, many of us have been unwell and have struggled with the lack of social contact. We have all felt the anxiety of being in an unpredictable, scary situation. We all want this to be over and for life to be normal again. We have all had enough of the things we hold dear being put on hold, and with planning for events, travel or gatherings being difficult or plain impossible.

“This is not a time to magnify our differences, but instead to reach out and decrease the distance between us.”

Fear and exhaustion can make all of us less empathic and less collaborative. And even though that is completely understandable, the effects can be damaging for a community that needs to find comfort and power in togetherness more than ever. If we start lashing out and blaming each other for bumps in the road and the inevitable problems that will continue to appear, we will lose strength and innovative spirit, and it will be so much harder to all get behind finding longer-term, sustainable solutions. This is not a time to magnify our differences, but instead to reach out and decrease the distance between us.

Just like last year, I want to remind myself of the simple truth that being angry, worried or upset by a situation that one cannot change or control is a waste of valuable energy. We need to accept the difficult truth and find a way to keep the longer-term horizon in view as we are dealing with new issues on a daily basis. And not everyone has the same wishes or demands. Students, by and large, expect teaching to be close to normal in 2021/22, but many staff are still concerned about COVID risks and, understandably, demand cautionary measures. Governments are navigating between the need to protect the economy and not overloading hospital wards. Most countries’ economies have taken a huge hit, and most healthcare systems are still under stress, both with new COVID cases and with a backlog. We are not in calm waters yet.

“We can be confident that if we stick together, we can be a strong, thriving community.”

On a positive note, we have experienced or even invented surprising solutions to COVID-related problems in our work and in our studies. And I suspect that early on we all had some COVID-related fears that have not materialised or at least were less pronounced than we thought. We need to hold on to those examples, because they can inspire us to redefine the new reality after COVID. We should also use them to realise that fear can be paralysing and can stop us from finding and using our innate strengths and our abilities to get us through tough times.

We need to realise that we still have quite a period of instability ahead, but we can be confident that if we stick together, we can be a strong, thriving community. Universities are at their best when they are outward-facing and contributing to societal change and solving the big problems of today. If we can use everything the pandemic has taught us about the power of human connection and collaboration, we can move into the uncertain future with the conviction that we will not just survive, but thrive as a community.

So, life after COVID may never completely return to the old ‘normal’, but perhaps accepting change and impermanence as an integral part of the human experience is a life lesson that will make us all stronger. To return to my words of a year ago: Every challenging life situation brings opportunities to learn and change.



Simone Buitendijk
University of Leeds

Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds.