Culture must lie at the heart of our response to the Covid-19 crisis

The pain of this pandemic may leave its mark on culture, but so will the beauty of how we overcome it

Sheikh Zayed and Zaki Nusseibeh covered in flower petals during a trip to India, 1975. Copyright Zaki Nusseibeh. Courtesy of the Akkasah Center for Photography
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There can be no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic presents a serious challenge to humanity. Yet we must ensure that it is our core humanity, and the values of collaboration, compassion and creativity, that remain at the very heart of our response to this crisis.

Given my responsibility for overseeing the UAE’s cultural diplomacy, I understand the vital role that culture plays in expressing and reinforcing these values. Therefore, I also know that, despite the obvious practical challenges, now is not the time to pause our cultural diplomacy; instead, we must accelerate it.

Therefore, while theatres, concert halls and galleries have closed, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation has been working hard to keep the stage lights shining. Several UAE ambassadors have conducted a series of discussions in an online symposium with cultural leaders in their host countries, from Australia to Singapore, from the UK to Japan and from Chile to the US.

This global dialogue has revealed that cultural institutions everywhere are struggling to deal with the impact of the pandemic, but they are also innovating and finding new ways to reach their audiences. Most importantly, the conversations have consistently highlighted how cultural exchange can help to ensure we emerge stronger from this human tragedy, with our progressive values reinforced.

The first of those values is collaboration. We cannot defeat this virus alone. We depend on others in our community to behave responsibly and care for each other, and the same is true of the international community. Countries should not put up walls in response to this threat; they must recognise that the only way out of this pandemic is through co-operation. So we need to break down barriers and show we are all in this together.

Connecting to our common humanity through culture is one of the best ways to do that. As one UAE ambassador put it in the symposium: “It is our duty to reach the hearts and minds of the people of the countries we are in”.

Cultural exchange can be a powerful antidote to the politics of division.
In the Japanese edition of the symposium, we learned how these human connections can be reflected in architecture. Ahmed Bukhash's design for the Expo Live Pavilion was inspired by a meeting in a bedouin tent between Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid, which initiated the co-operation that led to the founding of the UAE. But the Pavilion's design is also influenced by Japanese origami art, intertwining the spirit of collaboration between two emirates with that between two nations.

The second value that will help us to overcome this virus is compassion. There is a risk that people and countries turn inwards during crises, to focus exclusively on the needs of their own families or citizens. This is, of course, their primary responsibility. But this pandemic has revealed that we are only as strong as the weakest link, and the only way for humanity to emerge stronger from it is if we care for the vulnerable.

The symposium has heard much from cultural leaders about the role of culture in engaging, entertaining and even providing solace to vulnerable people in these stressful times. When people are isolated, when loved ones are sick and when the world outside appears alienating, cultural engagement can make people feel part of a shared experience – that they are not alone.

This same compassion is reflected in the provision of aid to vulnerable communities around the world. As of mid-May, the UAE had provided 523 tonnes of medical and food aid to 47 countries. As the UAE ambassador to Chile reminded symposium attendees, it is important to send a message that "we don't forget anyone".

An act of kindness can say a lot about a country's culture. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, said recently that he will "always remember the friends and partners who have supported us during this difficult time". As such, acts of kindness can also serve as powerful examples of public diplomacy.

The third value is that of creativity. Producing culture always demands creativity, but the Covid-19 pandemic has required even more extraordinary innovation when it comes to producing cultural output and delivering it to audiences.

In the symposium, we heard about the "museum without walls", a concept by the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto that allows visitors to tour its collections online. During the crisis, the curators have been doing 3D video walk-throughs of their collections, bringing them to life for viewers.

Indeed, despite all of the challenges, we have heard how many are seeing the crisis as an opportunity to experiment. They recognise that going online gives them the chance to reach a much wider audience. They are putting their creative minds to work on questions such as how to maintain the same quality of experience in the digital space. This innovative process will have lasting benefits.

However, it would be wrong to paint too rosy a picture. We have heard repeatedly of the struggle of many cultural institutions and their employees, as well as many artists, musicians and writers, as their revenues have disappeared overnight. If we value their work, which we all surely do, then we need to collectively make sure that they survive the crisis and open their doors again when it becomes safe to do so.

This crisis, like all crises, will leave its mark on culture. Our experience will be represented in cultural works for generations to come. They will express the pain of this period, but I also hope they will show the beauty of how humanity came together in its response.

For now however, my priority is to ensure that we make use of culture to help us get through this pandemic more united, more compassionate and more creative than ever before. Given what I have seen so far in this global cultural dialogue, I am convinced that we will succeed.

Zaki Nusseibeh is UAE Minister of State