The lonely life of the COVID diplomat

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Giorgio Guglielmino - The Philippine Star

When the word “Ambassador” is named to those who are not inside the world of diplomacy, the first images that come to mind are sumptuous banquets, receptions in residences in the most exclusive neighborhoods of the city or in five-star hotels. Interminable meetings also come to mind to decide the destinies of the world or simply to approve press releases and resolutions that, in the vast majority of cases, few will read and even fewer people will remember after a few weeks.

Cars whizzing through the streets of Manila, all relentlessly with the same license plate (because the more than 60 ambassadors present in Manila all have “1000” plates), taking their passengers to political meetings or the inauguration of a dam or to visit a convent of nuns who distribute food to the less fortunate.

Well, now forget all this because COVID has swept away all these habits, real or imaginary or just a little exaggerated. Receptions in large hotels for 500 guests and up? Big dinners in the residences? The rules imposed by the pandemic rightly prevent gatherings, not to mention the fact that the guests now decline with kindness but more and more often the invitations in the terror of being at the table with a neighbor who begins to cough. Visits to the nuns? Without getting out of the car, simply by lowering the window a few centimeters (the windows of the ambassadors’ cars are always dark and do not let you see the interior). Political meetings to approve texts and Resolutions? But for heaven’s sake, no one is going anywhere anymore.

This does not apply only to the ambassadors, but to their deputies (equally busy until one year ago with interminable deputies’ meetings), to the commercial counselors, to the cultural attachés: for them too there were peer meetings, receptions, business lunches.

So what has become today the work of ambassadors, people who made social relations the essential basis of their work?

Their work today is an endless, uninteresting, unchanging sequence of... zoom meetings! They only meet virtually, they define positions virtually, everything is flattened on the screen. One cannot even argue because at any moment the participant to whom the strong words are directed could turn off the audio and maybe even the video to go to the kitchen to ask the maid for a coffee. The virtual world is as flat as the computer screen, you can’t catch eye expressions (sometimes you only notice sad furnishings and curtains from another era in the background), you can’t wink at a neighbor as a sign of complicity because everyone sees everything. You no longer meet and when you meet, without shaking hands and without hugs, it is only for a few moments at the entrance to the supermarket, the only public meeting place accepted by all.

Something particularly funny is that by now the habit of meeting on a zoom platform or Webex or any other device has become so much in the mind that even one-on-one conversations take place via computer. Wouldn’t it be easier to use the good old phone?

Is it all bad? Is this a trend that will no longer be able to be reversed? Is it the end of a way of working and being (because in few professions in the world and in diplomacy par excellence the private sphere of being is so permeated by the social sphere of work)?

The truth for me is the exact opposite. I have never found my job as enjoyable and stimulating as it is today. Why? Because finally, after years of meetings with more and more participants (just think of the oceanic United Nations General Assemblies), of working groups with at least 30 people, of seated dinners at long tables with 18 or 24 people, of receptions in hotels where it seems to know everyone and none of the hundreds of guests, COVID led to meetings in a small format, indeed very small, where the human element is finally the master again.

How nice for me to sit at a restaurant table in front of one, two or at most three other people! We rediscover ourselves, we appreciate each other, we listen to each other. A good lunch with a colleague or a Filipino counterpart teaches me about him/her and the situation we are talking about better than 10 hours of zoom meetings. When I go to lunch with a fellow ambassador from Asia or with a couple of my colleagues from Europe I know that at the end of the meal I will be satisfied not only for the food (I usually choose an Italian restaurant) but also because I will have learned something about them, their way of thinking and their vision of the problems and issues we face. How nice to be in two or in any case in a few around a table (British say that six is the perfect number for people who want to have lunch and chat around a table).

COVID is a huge tragedy and we all hope that the pandemic will be over as soon as possible. But do not take away the pleasure of my restricted encounters with only one or two people sitting in front of me.

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Giorgio Guglielmino is the Italian Ambassador to the Philippines.

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