Don't Let History Repeat Itself

The MAA has a tradition of asking a member of the 50-year-anniversary class to address the graduating class at the Pre-Convocation Ceremony. This year, MAA President Dr. David McKnight (7T5) introduced Dr. David McNeely, the gold medalist of the Class of 7T1.

Dr. McNeely was an infectious disease and internal medicine specialist at University Health Network, and an associate professor at U of T. Here is part of his address.

Address by Dr. David McNeely (7T1)

“You are only the second of our classes, 2020 being the first, in the last 100 years to graduate during a pandemic.

I guess what I want to emphasize is that at the time of my graduation, ’71, a very strong feeling existed that infectious diseases had been vanquished. That a combination of public health measures, hygiene measures, vaccinations, and of course antibiotics, had rendered infectious diseases no more than a nuisance of the human condition…

For those of us who chose to go into infectious disease practice, there was an anxiety level as, year by year, we saw public health budgets and pandemic preparedness budgets being cut. And there was the perception that infectious diseases were no longer an important part of the human condition.

There was an awakening, if we can call it that, with the AIDS pandemic, but it quickly became apparent that that disease had a narrow spectrum of at-risk populations and was really no risk to the public at large. So back we went to reducing our preparedness for pandemics.

We even had two opportunities to recognize the possibility that the coronavirus would be the next pandemic and not the influenza virus. I speak of SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2014. In both of these circumstances, the virus had limited potential for community spread, they quietly died out, and people went back to sleep.

With the advent of this pandemic, it’s an embarrassment to say that most first-world countries did not even have enough paper gowns and disposable masks in their warehouses to adequately protect their health care givers…

I can predict with some reasonableness that in the 50 years between now and when you address a graduating class, you can expect at least one pandemic, if not more. Preparedness must always be an underlying concern.

My best bets would be either a variant influenza, or perhaps one of the mosquito-borne illnesses given the pace of climate change and intrusion into habitat spaces by the humans.

So in the coming years, over the 50 years before you would do this exercise for a graduating class, there will be, I suspect, a tendency to downsize, to underestimate, the potential for pandemic. And that would be wrong.

Once again, then, on behalf of the Class of 7T1, congratulations.”


Medical Alumni Association

of the University of Toronto
The MAA is an independent association funded by U of T MD alumni, working in partnership with the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. 

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