With each passing day, the absurd harm to lives and livelihood worldwide from the Covid-19 pandemic continues with little check.
How leaders of countries, regions and localities protect citizens will be long remembered. Now is the time to face up to any added absurdity of any leader's behavior, and keep calling it out.
Ongoing events remind me of an intriguing discussion with the man credited to first describe the theater of the absurd. Decades ago, when I called Stanford University’s “communication group” to seek an appointment with an appropriate faculty member, I was directed to Martin Esslin.
The authority on the theater of the absurd, Esslin had just returned to serve as professor of drama. He graciously welcomed a visit, with the length of the visit stretching as he probed my interest in propaganda.
He shared insights on his work after 1943, when he had participated in counter-propaganda radio broadcasts. This was for the British propaganda broadcaster during World War II that pretended to be a radio station of the German military broadcasting network.
The Nazis required people in occupied countries to listen only to German radio broadcasts. After the broadcast of Hitler’s speeches, Esslin and others from the BBC, under the guise of Soldatensender Calais, would broadcast in German an immediate analysis of Hitler’s speeches that was unfavorable to the Germans.
Dealing with the Absurd
I have ever since wondered how much Esslin's time in this involvement impacted his later critical thinking to describe the theater of the absurd. He was keen that I shift my Master of Arts research to focus on the radio station’s files, which he believed were still untouched at the BBC archives. He was prepared to facilitate my access for a study that he felt could be groundbreaking.
It was intriguing and wonderful advice that I was too young in perspective or wisdom to follow. The project might have defined a different personal future. Instead, I returned to Australia to pursue other initiatives which were life-changing in other ways.
To Defeat a Bad Actor
An enduring lesson from this discussion with Esslin is the extraordinary effort needed to face and defeat an unfit leader.
… is often translated from the Māori to describe New Zealand as the “land of the long white cloud.”
Although New Zealanders see the unwelcome pall of Covid-19 drifting away for now, they might feel like their All Blacks rugby team just after many a match–elated at a win and yet to recover from the effort.
Alternate translations of Aotearoa are “long bright world” or “land of abiding day.”
As a recent writer for Politico put it “the first major country to see the sun rise every day, may also be the first to get a good look at life after Covid-19.”
A Leader Matters
Certainly, the decisive statements and actions of Prime Minister Ardern seemed to do the trick, expecting the best of New Zealanders, who delivered.
It's a great case for what happens when you can trust your government.
Whatever quibbles or more that the future brings as we learn more about this virus, what we learned for now and then is that a leader can matter to head off mass suffering.
People Matter Too
In some other countries, I’m just hoping that a version of Leo Tolstoy’s thoughts on great military leadership results.
At the close of War and Peace, he claimed great military successes resulted from something like an infectious collective action among the troops, in concert with unfolding events, rather than any great value in what a leader said or did.
In many places, with medical staff, other first responders, state governors, local officials, and individuals increasingly taking actions that are often complementary, thankfully it’s starting to look like Tolstoy was onto something.
The “troops,” that is, local leaders, workers, and other citizens are making progress.
In some ways akin to the personally piercing shaft of memory each of us has for when 9/11 occurred, we will all recall our own instant of realization for the danger that Covid-19 posed.
For us, it was my wife's return from a monthly luncheon with friends very early in March, where no one offered anyone the customary American hug in greeting.
Since then, like many others, we remain homebound.
In 2019, some newspapers were running stories about the centenary of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-19. No one guessed then that the world would soon fall victim to the highly infectious and deadly pandemic of COVID-19.
The 1918 Spanish Flu retrospective stories were only highlighted personally because I'd recently discovered that my grandfather had traveled from New Zealand to the west coast of the U.S.A. in mid-1919, to live and work, initially in Seattle. Nana and my dad (aged three) remained in New Zealand for almost a year before joining him, presumably awaiting confidence on the passing of the flu.
A starkly iconic image that I googled showed the U.S. Army 39th regiment, in late 1918, marching down the main street of Seattle in surgical masks, prior to departing for France. Another photo in Seattle (above) showed a group of policemen wearing masks.
Who could guess that we all would soon enough be wearing protective masks, amid unimaginable loss of life and economic disaster.
To state the obvious, this one has changed the world in so many yet-to-be-seen ways, well beyond the initial health and economic impacts. Certainly, we are seeing only the beginnings of how public communication will keep evolving.
In the short run, we see other changes. For example, a former nationwide bakery chain has moved to distributing groceries. At least in the United States, as individual enterprise drives forward new ways to earn a living in the changed world, the competition in many industries will be fierce, even as delivery modes change.
After some trial fits and starts, I believe much education at all levels might be mainly online, maybe for a long time. These concerns will persist, underpinning the more immediate worries about life and death in 2020.
Among the few benefits of the isolation are the increased interactions (remotely) with friends. As one friend put it, some of us have friends "with friends, who are bored," who help ease the isolation by finding and emailing more jokes, cartoons, and satire. Many of these are very funny.
A special benefit too is to hear more often from friends who were so often on planes–now safely working from home and emailing great memes!
Much thanks to all! May public and personal communications increasingly thrive.