Idea

In moments of crisis, people need culture

29/03/2020
11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities

COVID-19 has brought into stark relief, as crises often do, the necessity of culture for people and communities. At a time when billions of people are physically separated from one another, culture brings us together. It provides comfort, inspiration and hope at a time of enormous anxiety and uncertainty. Yet even as we rely on culture to get us through this crisis, culture is also suffering. Many artists and creators, especially those that work in the informal or gig economy, are now unable to make ends meet, much less produce new works of art. Cultural institutions, both large and small, are losing millions in revenue with each passing day. As the world works to address the immediate danger of COVID-19, we also need to put in place measures to support artists and access to culture, both in the short and long-term.

by Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture

Culture, common good for resilient societies

Today we are facing a global crisis unlike any we have seen this century. Thousands of people have lost their lives to COVID-19 and many more have been infected. Billions of people are now confined to their homes around the world. Those who cannot work from home – doctors, nurses, emergency personnel, people who work in essential services like supermarkets and pharmacies, and sanitation workers, just to name a few – are putting their lives on the line every day to keep us safe and healthy. Healthcare systems in even the wealthiest of countries are straining under the pressure of this global pandemic. Economically, socially and psychologically, the impact of COVID-19 will likely be felt long after this sanitary crisis is over.

COVID-19 has brought into stark relief, as crises often do, the necessity of culture for people and communities. On social media, we have seen inspiring videos of world-renowned artists and musicians performing for free for their neighbours, as well as millions of people online. Many are using their artistic talents to spread important information about COVID-19, such as proper handwashing and the need for social distancing. We have seen entire communities, isolated in their homes and apartments, come together to sing, play music, dance and even project films from their windows and balconies. Museums, opera houses, concert halls and other cultural institutions, now closed to the public, have generously opened their doors online, providing free virtual tours of their collections and streaming performances for free. Libraries, including film libraries, have also opened up their collections to the public. UNESCO is encouraging World Heritage sites to follow suit, and UNESCO platforms such as World Heritage Journeys in Europe already offer a means for people to explore World Heritage from their homes.

At a time when billions of people are physically separated from one another, culture has brought us together, keeping us connected and shortening the distance between us. It has provided comfort, inspiration and hope at a time of enormous anxiety and uncertainty.

At a time when billions of people are physically separated from one another, culture has brought us together, keeping us connected and shortening the distance between us. It has provided comfort, inspiration and hope at a time of enormous anxiety and uncertainty.

Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture

Culture is also in crisis

Yet even as we rely on culture to get us through this crisis, we cannot forget that culture is also suffering. Many artists and creators, especially those that work in the informal or gig economy, are now unable to make ends meet, much less produce new works of art. Cultural institutions, both large and small, are losing millions in revenue with each passing day. Many World Heritage properties are now closed, which will also have a social and economic impact on the communities that live in and around these sites. COVID-19 has put many intangible cultural heritage practices, including rituals, rites and ceremonies, both religious and non-religious, on hold, with important consequences for the social and cultural life of communities everywhere. As the recent earthquake in Zagreb has shown, cultural heritage remains vulnerable to natural disasters and other threats, with COVID-19 further complicating emergency response efforts.

Moreover, for millions of people around the world access to culture through digital means remains out of reach. According to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, 86% of the population of developed countries uses the Internet, versus just 47% of the population of developing countries. The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, established by ITU and UNESCO, specifies in its State of Broadband 2019  report that a total of 43.5% respondents in low-income countries have pointed to poor connectivity as a barrier when trying to use the internet, compared to only 34.6% of those in upper middle-income and 25% in high-income. There also remains an important gender divide in terms of access to the Internet. According to the OECD, 27 million fewer women than men have a smartphone and can access mobile Internet. The 2019 UNESCO publication "I'd Blush If I Could", produced under the auspices of the EQUALS Global Partnership, illustrates that women are now four times less likely than men to be digitally literate.

We need a concerted and global effort to support artists and ensure access to culture for all.

Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture

Take action to support artists and increase access to culture

As the world works to address the immediate danger of COVID-19 we also need to put in place measures to support artists and access to culture, both in the short and long -term.

We need to work to ensure that culture is accessible to all, and that the full diversity of humanity’s cultural expressions can flourish, both online and offline. Ensuring culture is accessible to communities without Internet access, including indigenous peoples, will require that we embrace analog tools, such as community radio. We need to encourage countries to ensure that artists can access global markets and that they are fairly remunerated for their work. With one fifth of those employed in cultural occupations working part-time, and often on a contractual, freelance or intermittent basis, we need to rethink the labour and social protection frameworks surrounding artists, to take into account the unique ways in which artists work. At all times, including crises such as this one, we need to ensure that the economic, social and human rights of artists and creators are respected. This includes their right to free expression and protection from censorship.

UNESCO has made it its mission to promote access to culture during this time of self-isolation and confinement. We have launched the social media campaign #ShareCulture and encourage people around the world to share their culture and creativity with one another online. We are also working to step up our ongoing efforts to increase access to culture and support protections for artists, in order to address the root causes of the current crisis facing culture.

Now, more than ever, people need culture. Culture makes us resilient. It gives us hope. It reminds us that we are not alone. That is why UNESCO will do all it can to support culture, to safeguard our heritage and empower artists and creators, now and after this crisis has passed. We hope you will join us in this effort, by supporting culture in your own community, however you can.

Ernesto Ottone
Assistant Director General for Culture