Notes From a Diplomat in Isolation
Communicating science to the public is not always easy. It requires a different set of skills than those generally used to address the scientific community. Claudia Dreifus, lecturer in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management and an adjunct professor of International Affairs and Media, shares these skills in her class Writing Global Science for International Media. The course invites students to produce different stories that address global science topics in a more personal and relatable way for the non-scientific public.
It is important to “learn how to translate global science,” says Dreifus. “Science is performed by passionate individuals who use their intelligence and determination to seek answers from nature. By telling their stories […], we believe that there are ways for science to be successfully communicated to readers who might otherwise fear it.”
Below is the work of one of her Spring 2020 students, Andrés Córdova. Andrés is a student in the Executive Master of Public Administration program.
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On March 12, 2020, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic became personal to me when I received a call from a colleague from the Mission of the Philippines, with whom I had been working closely days prior on issues related to biodiversity. She said, “Andrés, a member of my Mission has tested positive for coronavirus. Our staff has been sent home to voluntary isolation since we have been exposed to her. I’m sorry to tell you this. I am scared. I can’t stop shaking.” I took some minutes to calm her down, saying that everything was going to be fine, to get home safely, and that we would stay in contact.
I realized then that I had potentially been exposed. For a few minutes everything was quiet. No thoughts. I wasn’t afraid—maybe it was shock. The virus didn’t feel distant anymore. It was here. It was real. After a few minutes I called my ambassador to explain the situation and he advised me to stay home. Some co-workers were called on to do the same. Soon more followed.
That day my isolation began. I was calm, but conscious that I needed to take care of myself and others around me. I had already followed the advice given at work to have two weeks of food supplies, spending double than usual. Applications for services such as delivery through Amazon Prime, Down Dog, Whole Foods, Door Dash and Seamless proved to be a valuable resource for food, health, and entertainment.
During these last two months, I have rediscovered things that perhaps I had been taking for granted. I have spoken more with family, lifelong friends and colleagues from around the world in the last month than in the last year. Everybody, whether some blocks or half the globe away, is digitally at the same distance now, and in the same situation, trying to get by. It feels like people mostly just want to talk, listen and be heard, to feel some sort of connection. Perhaps I was too distracted before, going too fast, to take some minutes and think about how important are those people who have always been by my side.
I had been working as a diplomat at the Permanent Mission of Ecuador to the United Nations in New York for three years when the sharp uptick in confirmed cases of COVID-19 started to challenge every aspect of day-to-day life, capital markets, and foreign travel. The usually intense and fast-paced dynamic of the U.N.’s work was also changing, with meetings being postponed and canceled.
U.N. staff and delegates were concerned about how ordinary citizens might react if the U.N. was not functioning normally. The global organization, built in the aftermath of the Second World War, was expected to provide guidance, solutions, and assurance, especially in a time of crisis. The World Health Organization and other U.N. entities, as well as essential personnel throughout the world, have indeed stepped up to the challenge. But other areas of the organization’s work took a pause, as with other sectors. At the end of the day, diplomats and staff are susceptible to getting sick and putting others at risk, and must also deal with family concerns, stress, and anxiety.
Nonetheless, measures were put in place to continue discussing important world issues that cannot wait, such as sustainable development, conflict resolution and the budget of U.N. operations worldwide. The work at the U.N. has to focus on how to address prevention, recovery and resilience, and to continue bringing economic prosperity, social inclusion and environmental protection, increasing investments for wellbeing and avoiding future crises.
My work calendar filled with virtual meetings, workshops and briefings. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex and other platforms, became part of my day. On March 18th, I was very proud to have led the discussions on the modalities for a biodiversity summit during the first ever virtual meeting of the Group of 77 and China —comprised of 134 developing countries. Bad connection, hacking or interruptions were concerns, but it went well. We all wanted it to work.
I have to admit that certain aspects of my work have seemed a little unnecessary. Some meetings, discussions and events are sometimes too political, with no tangible results, in a time were the organization needs to be effective and action-oriented, and the priority is to overcome the virus and save lives. It has become evident to me that before the pandemic, I spent far too much time discussing changing a single word or adding a paragraph in documents that right now, no one is really paying attention to — or maybe never did.
Thoughts of having a different profession also have struck me. Of being an indispensable worker such as a doctor, a first responder, an engineer, or an inventor. As a diplomat, what can I do about this horrible disaster affecting all of humanity? Compared to workers on the frontlines, my results are usually intangible — they take time to show. Focused on policy making or on building strong relationships with others, they pass unnoticed.
Send me to a conflicted area to try to achieve peace, or to a negotiation room with international representatives to figure out how to protect our planet, reduce inequalities, and achieve prosperity. These skills don’t seem too useful right now. But I hope that someday we will put everything on hold and come together to finally agree on these pressing sustainable development issues, which are actually just as urgent and the current crisis we’re facing.
The pandemic has also affected my academic life. I was halfway through the last semester of my Executive Master in Public Administration at Columbia University when campus closed and physical classes were no longer an option. It was one of the first U.S. universities to take steps to continue classes through virtual education, and professors made extra efforts to keep students engaged. It was a good call of the university in order to avoid the spread of the virus. Certainly, I was a little depressed that Columbia officials cancelled the in-person commencement. I was looking forward to that moment of recognition after two years of nights and weekend classes for the last two years. My parents had planned to come from Ecuador to share that accomplishment with me along with classmates and friends.
I have kept in contact with colleagues from work, maintaining conversations on best practices of governments and the private sector. On how resources and programs cannot simply wait. On how companies are producing medical supplies and increasing internet speed, and universities are making 3D ventilators. Practices that need to be shared and publicized. I have closely followed the journeys of friends trying to get back to their countries.
Regular talks and chats with friends, sharing news, experiences or memes also take some of the pressure away. Some laughs and drinks in this situation can go a long way. I feel we just want to know we are well and there for each other, together, getting past this situation.
I am especially concerned with what is happening in my home country while I am away. Horrifying headlines from the New York Times read, “Ecuador’s Death Toll During Outbreak Is Among the Worst in the World.” From the BBC: “Coronavirus nightmare in Ecuador’s port city Guayaquil.” From The Guardian: “Ecuador’s death rate soars as fears grow over scale of coronavirus crisis.” These are definitely not the usual news titles of news from a beautiful natural and cultural destination. I get sad and worried for my family, friends, the people I know. The pandemic poses specific challenges for developing countries, including on healthcare services, financial stability and security. More international cooperation is needed.
My parents live in Guayaquil, the most populated city in Ecuador —with the most COVID-19 confirmed cases in the country. Both of them are senior citizens, recognized as the most vulnerable facing the disease. My father manages the Guayaquil Airport, and his job is essential as humanitarian flights continue, getting people home and delivering medicines and basic goods. I have spoken with them almost every day by phone or video conference, just to make sure they are safe. They love to travel and may not be able to do so for a very long time. I wonder when will be the next time I see them in person, give them a hug and just be by their side for a few days.
The state of world at this moment seems reduced to a constant update of the number of confirmed cases and deaths. It is unfortunate to see how some people do not take seriously the disease and restrictions, putting in danger not only themselves but others. Maybe they simply don’t understand, and the government has to do more, but it is a shared responsibility. For some reason I also feel particularly saddened when a musician passes away—to think their voice has been turned off and the world will not have that joy anymore.
Staying at home is challenging. It is not only a matter of protecting one’s health but of reducing the risk of contagion of others that are more vulnerable. As soon as this principle is recognized by everyone, the disease will be controlled faster. A common effort is necessary for everyone to return to their normal lives.
This situation will last for many months to come. I feel it’s important to keep calm, avoid unnecessary stress, continue to be active mentally and physically, and stay informed and connected. I hope schools will increase free online education and courses, and that companies take measures to maintain workers, give back to consumers and help those who need it the most. I am glad I could continue therapy sessions online. I can understand how being alone or constrained can become a source of anxiety, unease and uncertainty. It is important to feel and assimilate the situation and reach out for help if needed. Human beings are capable, resilient, able to learn, and hopefully, we will transcend this crisis and be better to one another.
Somehow, days feel shorter in time. Before the pandemic, I had so many activities and not enough time, but now the days also fly. Time passes by no matter what a person does, so maybe it’s time to refocus some of it on what is really important: loved ones, family, friends, and personal growth and health.
I am grateful to see people rising up to the challenge, being innovative, adapting and keeping in contact with their loved ones. I have felt the drive from others to remain together even when it is necessary to be apart. This sort of gravity as well as love are forces that know not of time nor of distances and always find their ways. I believe connection is what is giving me strength during this pandemic, and it’s what will continue to guide us through.
Correction, 13 June 2020: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Andres Cordova is a student in Sustainability Management.
The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit our website to learn more.