Of all the words associated with 2020 so far, “hope” is not exactly one of them.
So the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (RRB/ITC) came up with the “Diplomatic Messages of Hope” campaign, which offers embassies a virtual platform to share words of encouragement and inspiration during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since its debut in April, envoys from over 50 embassies ranging from Afghanistan to Latvia to Venezuela have sent in videos featuring uplifting anecdotes, details on how their countries are coping with the pandemic, words of advice and other positive messages as a break from the daily onslaught of grim headlines and statistics with which we’ve become all too familiar.
The videos — which are uploaded to the RRB/ITC’s YouTube channel on a rolling basis — are a reminder that we remain connected, even in our new contactless world.
“Diplomatic Messages of Hope is based on the belief that we as a community are stronger if we feel we are all in this together,” said Andrew Gelfuso, director of World Trade Center Washington, DC at RRB/ITC. “The stories submitted by the embassies ranged from music, poetry and visual clips of their country — yet, underneath each message, was the universal theme that ‘we are not alone.’”
Those messages are conveyed with a mixture of solemnity, determination — and, in the case of Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček, with a sense of humor.
Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, dark shades and a mask that depicts a cartoon dog-like nose and smiling mouth, Kmoníček looks more like an actor in a spy spoof than an ambassador.
His attempt at going incognito stands in sharp contrast to the seriousness of his tone as he reflects on the ways that the virus has transformed our lives — both good and bad.
“Virtually overnight our lives suddenly became much simpler and basic. Today we meet only the people we trust, and we somehow understand much more who we really are,” the ambassador says, gradually taking off his hat.
“For now masks keep us safer. In some places they even help in the retreat of COVID-19, as we have seen back home in the Czech Republic,” he continues, taking off his mask to reveal yet another one underneath — this one featuring a darker, Pluto-like cartoon nose.
“But every time we leave our houses, we realize that what we may have gained in our private lives, at the same time, we have lost in our public lives.”
“Now everybody looks the same in their masks. You don’t even know if you have met this particular person before or not. You don’t know who is smiling behind the mask and who just cannot. We became faceless,” he says, removing his sunglasses.
So what’s his message of hope?
It’s “hope that once the pandemic is over, we will be able to keep the simplicity we gained and at the same time reclaim our public faces. We will not be the faceless crowds in the street but once again people with their individual faces. People who came to realize what is really important and whose faces can show it,” he says, removing the last mask to finally reveal his face.
To cap off the video, Kmoníček raises a mug and wishes everyone strength and health “in our traditional way — with half a liter of our strong, original Czech beer, which is hopefully waiting for you in the city of Prague very, very soon.”
With travel restrictions in place, however, Americans will have to wait a while before they can visit Europe.
In its video, the Portuguese Embassy offers a film montage of stunning sights that many travelers won’t get to experience any time soon — from jagged mountaintops to crowded cafes — while reminding viewers that “nature, landscapes, beaches and monuments aren’t going anywhere. They will still be there waiting for a better time to be lived.”
“It’s time to stop. Time to make a pause so we can play again,” the narrator says. “To think of everyone, and meet no one. To reset, recent, switch off to move on. Time to change our little world. To calibrate the path of mankind. We are meant to connect and are stronger together, but separated. We are today more united than ever.”
Other videos illustrate how nations are helping people unite through acts of kindness.
Ricklef Beutin, the deputy chief of mission of the German Embassy, said that while most of the embassy’s 200 employees are working from home, “we feel more connected to our American partners and friends. We really feel that we are in this together and that we should work together. We are especially grateful, as many people are, for the work that those heroes do at the front lines.”
To that end, the embassy started “Wunderbar Together: Germany Thanks Heroes,” which has handed out lunchboxes to workers at George Washington University Hospital and United Medical Center in D.C.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian Embassy has started a Diplomatic Equipment Stockpile Initiative that provides vital supplies to an often-overlooked group of front-line workers: the diplomats who provide consular services to their citizens.
Afghan Ambassador Roya Rahmani reflected on how her countrymen are practicing acts of kindness at home, despite still dealing with the ravages of war and poverty.
“Young girls are collecting money and going door to door with cleaning supplies. Young men are distributing books in poor neighborhoods to help keep children amused and their minds engaged,” she said.
“In the midst of this crisis, people have had the opportunity to reflect,” Rahmani added. “They have refined their priorities and are giving their hearts to their communities, cherishing their loved ones and showing generosity and compassion to those in need.”
Those words are also what many of us need nowadays — a reminder of the compassion and courage people around the world are showing in the face of unprecedented challenges.
“As global citizens in disturbing and troubled times, we hope we offered a way to stay connected to our embassies, friends, clients and stakeholders around the world and to remind one another of our common experience and destiny,” Gelfuso said. “We discovered once again how personal connections transcend distance and borders and offer strength to each other during these most uncommon times.”
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.