by Špela Majcen Marušič
We’ve been reading about all different ways that Covid has impacted our lives in the past year. One aspect that is rarely discussed, however, is that we have started thinking backwards. Keeping people at home or close to home in a pandemic is a reasonable measure, but certain rhetoric about the situation could project us 30 years in the past. Back to when Erasmus exchanges have just begun. So, what can the EU do to keep up the Erasmus spirit in the new normal? Digital communication, digital communication, digital communication.
During our first lockdowns in spring 2020, I was mind-blown by people repeating that “I don’t need to go anywhere for holidays, the mountains here at home are enough for me”. While this sounds cute coming from a Slovenian patriot, it paints a grim picture of how the nation sees reality. Yes, this way of thinking can be a good reasoning behind the “stay at home” requirement during a pandemic, but what happens after? Is one year of lockdowns enough to persuade people that they don’t need to experience or know more than they already do?
1986 society in a digital world of 2026
Covid lockdowns fast forwarded us five years into the future when it comes to the use of internet. Can nationalist rhetorics during lockdowns rewind us back 30 years? Travel restrictions and lockdowns play well into the hand of right-wing politicians, and people are led to believe that what they have in their microcosms is enough. They are ready to willingly lock themselves into their small worlds, look for similar narrow minded individuals online and enjoy the bliss of their ignorance. They don’t need free travel. And when they will travel again, they will travel with a whole new piece of extra hand luggage: prejudice and cliches.
Drop a futuristic computer and social platforms into the year 1986 and see what happens. I wouldn’t want that. I fear that if this scenario is to play out, we will soon be building new walls to hide behind. Not just figuratively. Once we are convinced that all we need is in our micro environments, everything else, all that is different, becomes “dangerous”. Perceiving differences as danger polarises societies and leads to unrests, wars even.
Digitalising the spirit of Erasmus
The EU has been fighting to overcome prejudice and cliches among its nations since the end of WWII. One of the most successful programmes building invisible bonds of mutual understanding is the Erasmus Programme. The exchange year, when EU students are supposed to study abroad, but in fact do everything else. And it’s all good, because the basic purpose of Erasmus is not academic excellence, but building a genuine European community. Discovering that Belgian cuisine is not only fries or that Slovenia has amazing highways, understanding why the French close down during lunchtime and why Greeks continue to believe they are indeed the cradle of all civilisation.
The problem with Erasmus in a Covid world is that it relies heavily on physical movement and interpersonal relations. Which are extremely limited in the current context of Covid. And once travel and circulation of students is open again, it might be hard to start turning the wheel again and reach the same pre-pandemic speed. There might be groups of young people hardly waiting to board the plane again, but a bigger portion of Europeans might wish to play it safe and wait. After all, what they have at home seems to be enough, right?
The power of social media
The future belongs to the young. And they all use digital. A lot. They are on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok. Building communities and keeping up intercultural discussions on those platforms should now be the primary focus of all EU communicators. It is time that we finally acknowledge that a parallel digital society does exist. Being on Instagram is as important to a teenager today as it was to hang out in cafes after (or during) school back in the 1990s.
Innovative social media campaigns and projects such harnessing influencers to communicate diversity and creating communities across the EU will be the way forward in the post-pandemic world. Getting young communicators on board will be crucial as technology and platforms develop at a crazy pace and only those that use it can achieve best impact.
Digitalising the Erasmus spirit would in no way prevent young Europeans to embark on an actual exchange. In fact, it would propel the popularity of the programme and lay foundations for a whole new generation of digital Europeans.
And so, explaining to young Europeans that looking over “our mountains” is key to achieving their full personal and professional potential will create a strong foundation for a tolerant post-pandemic society, where we use global connectivity to build great new things. Together.