COVID-19’s significant impact on economic and social life has rightfully garnered the attention of citizens and policymakers alike. A lesser-known effect of the pandemic though has been the heavy strain it has placed on efforts to preserve and protect cultural heritage. In response to the pandemic, governments have issued strict guidelines and restrictions to shut down theaters, museums, cultural heritage sites, libraries, airports, malls, schools, and restaurants. With no cure or vaccine on the horizon, governments are working to mitigate the damage of the lockdowns on cultural heritage sites.
Over the past two decades, cultural heritage—especially in conflict zones—has been negatively impacted by terrorism, illicit trafficking, climate change, lack of funding, and even neglect. COVID-19 has had similar effects, but in an incredibly short period of time.
For example, COVID-19 lockdowns immediately brought critical restoration and rehabilitation work to a stop. In Afghanistan, work on restoring the Topdara Stupa, dating from early AD, was required to stop. Recent repair and restoration began in 2016, and the stupa’s drum and base were successfully tended to, but the entire structure needed to be rehabilitated appropriately. It is difficult to tell when the stupa will be able to stand complete.
In Gao, Mali, an extensive rehabilitation project on the Tomb of Askia was only very recently launched, but was put on pause. The tomb, a unique pyramidal structure that contains two mosques and a cemetery, is representative of the monumental mud-building traditions of the West African Sahel. In Spain, the famous Sagrada Família, first constructed in 1882, remains unfinished. Although expected to be completed in 2026, the imposed lockdown has brought an indefinite stop to any further restoration of the temple.
COVID-19 has had a massive impact on the travel and tourism industry, both of which are vital for the cultural sector. In April 2020, world heritage sites in Southeast Asia saw a decline of visitors of up to 99 percent. These sites represent vital sources of employment not only to the local population, but also to cultural organizations, institutions, associations, archaeologists, and artisans.
The significant economic impacts of the pandemic have made many countries mobilize funds to ensure that people working in the industry can financially support themselves and that the sites themselves are not permanently closed. Nonetheless, urgent funding is needed to defray pending operations and provide healthcare to staff, among many other costs.
Furthermore, cultural sites can be peace hubs that help maintain reconciliation processes, which in turn can foster environments that brings communities together under a common umbrella to learn, understand, and live peacefully together. These potentially positive effects are especially important in the pandemic period, when the mental and emotional effects of social isolation are slowly becoming clearer.
Efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of cultural heritage sites and to ensure sites stay open are already underway. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), convened meetings with culture ministers to “identify remedial policy measures” that can address this important issue. This includes an international social media campaign called #ShareOurHeritage which incorporates online exhibitions of cultural sites. The fact remains, however, that almost 90 percent of World Heritage sites remain totally or partially closed.
Ministers of culture from over 140 countries have also taken their own initiative, having met on April 20 to discuss the “cultural crisis.” In this meeting, Noura al-Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development of the United Arab Emirates, made a strong case to support cultural activities and “protect the individuals and companies who work in the creative sector.” An impact and response tracker published by UNESCO shows that the ministries of culture in countries like Iran, Italy, Argentina, and Egypt have been emphasizing the development of digital platforms to ensure that knowledge regarding cultural heritage is still being passed on.
These initiatives are promising and can, in some instances, be bolstered by reasonable measures that allow certain sites to reopen. For example, the government of South Korea opened museums and cultural institutions in May under social distancing measures, though later shut down many public spaces until June 14 amid a rise in coronavirus cases. The government of Egypt is considering placing floor signs on the floors of museums to allow them to open while maintaining proper social distancing. These measures, among many others, will also make it possible for people who work in the museums to maintain their previous level of financial security.
Through these efforts, appreciation of the need to connect to one’s cultural heritage during the pandemic period is growing. In particular, allowing citizens to engage in dialogue regarding history and tradition, sharing similar and diverse experiences, and even allowing them to visit national memorials with appropriate measures, will help people weather the mental and emotional toll.
Ultimately, by their very presence, cultural monuments instill a sense of history, community, and solidarity within societies. They are sources of inspiration, resilience, courage, and artistic innovation that are much needed during this pandemic. While there is undoubtedly a pressing need to invest heavily in the future—in particular to remedy the pandemic’s devastating economic impacts—this is not fully possible without ensuring the concepts, experiences, and teachings of the past are also incorporated.
Nadia Al-Said is Programs Manager at the International Peace Institute (IPI).