Published on Sustainable Cities

Culture in the COVID-19 recovery: Good for your wallet, good for resilience, and good for you

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Des jeunes interprètent un opéra traditionnel chinois. Photo : You Ji / Banque mondiale Young people perform traditional Chinese opera/Photo Credit:You Ji / World Bank

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted the arts and culture sector around the world.  With museums, cultural institutions, World Heritage Sites, and other historic monuments closed, communities are deprived of culture as well as significant revenues. At the height of the global lockdown, 90% of countries had closed their World Heritage properties.

The medium- and long-term implications are significant as many natural and cultural World Heritage sites rely on tourism revenue to carry out conservation or archaeological work. The upkeep of certain cultural sites and institutions could be in jeopardy. In addition, in some places, there has been an uptick in poaching and looting. Museums have been particularly affected by the pandemic; 90% closed their doors during the crisis and as many as one in eight may never reopen again. The cancellation of national and local cultural and religious events—such as festivals, rituals, and varying forms of traditional practices—has had a direct impact on communities and their social fabric and cohesion.

The dip in cultural tourism is economically straining territories that were once thriving from the influx of tourists.  In Ghana, COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the cultural tourism and hospitality industry. The Central Region of Ghana which hosts the famous World Heritage Sites of Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle has been especially hard-hit. All the major attractions and subsequently all 57 hotels in the region have closed down. It is estimated that directly or indirectly some 1,500 jobs have been lost.

In Sri Lanka, the decline in human and financial resources is impacting the operation and maintenance arrangements of heritage sites, with archaeological monuments particularly at risk, including from overgrown weeds. Similarly, the continued closure of painted cave temples could negatively impact the paintings due to lack of proper ventilation systems or effective monitoring.

As experienced in several countries, reduced security can elevate the risk of theft of artefacts in cultural sites and illegal activities in natural heritage areas.

Countries and communities are taking action. After the Indonesian Heritage Trust (BPPI) sounded the alarm, Indonesia began setting up an assistance program to support the cultural organizations facing hardship due to closures. In South Africa, professional artists petitioned the government to access their studios during the strict lockdown imposed by the government. The country’s biggest cultural event, the National Arts Festival (NAF), has moved online, drastically impacting ticket sales. Meanwhile, in Australia, performance and exhibition venues have shut down with little or no notice, artistic programs and activities have been cancelled, and hundreds of thousands of creative professionals have faced significant barriers to earning income.

But of all the sectors hit hard by COVID-19, why should policymakers care about the cultural sector? There is often a common misconception that arts and culture are a cost center that requires a steady stream of subsidies, which would divert scarce public money away from other more lucrative economic development sectors. Quite the contrary, this sector is proven to be a major contributor to the economy.

In 2013, creative industries around the world generated revenues of over $2 billion and employed 29 million people. The market for creative goods is estimated to be $508 billion as of 2015. In 2015, developing economies exported more than 250 billion creative products including design goods, fashion, and films. Top exporters included China, Turkey, India, Mexico, El Salvador, and Pakistan.

In pre-COVID-19 South Africa, jobs in arts and culture comprised approximately 7% of the country’s workforce, of which 43% are informal, and still more people are freelance or contract workers. The arts sector is estimated to account for 1.6% of the country’s GDP. In the United States, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $166.3 billion of economic activity in 2015, encompassing $63.8 billion in spending by arts and cultural organizations and $102.5 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. They supported 4.6 million jobs and generated $27.5 billion in revenue for local, state, and federal governments, while collectively receiving only $5 billion in arts allocations by the public sector. A good yield, some may say.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, arts and culture, like all other affected sectors of society and the economy, need government support to mitigate the negative impacts from the lockdowns and economic downturn, as well as to jumpstart the recovery process.

Many countries and territories are providing just that. In Croatia, the Ministry of Culture is supporting independent artists who have lost income due to COVID-19. In Hong Kong, the government’s Anti-Epidemic Fund has allocated around $20 million through the Home Affairs Bureau to support the arts sector, of which over $6 million is allocated to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to strengthen its “Support Scheme for Arts and Cultural Sector.”

In Mexico, private companies and interest groups established the Music Mexico COVID-19 (MMC-19) to mitigate the negative economic impacts of COVID-19 on the music industry. In South Africa, the National Arts Council (NAC) will continue paying artists who had been confirmed for activities with Council support which have now been disrupted by the pandemic. Furthermore, the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture Relief Plan established criteria for cancelled productions, live events, and projects to request for relief assistance. This program has received 5,000 applications. Singapore launched an extensive support scheme for the arts and culture sector, which includes wage support, training support, workforce special payments, and financing for digitalizing arts and cultural resources where possible.

Culture is not just another affected sector in need of public support during this time of crisis. In fact, culture can also accelerate socio-economic recovery from the pandemic. In their 2018 publication “Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery,” the World Bank and UNESCO called for a culture-based approach for city reconstruction and recovery in post-crisis situations. The framework, entitled CURE, offers principles and strategies to apply to the current pandemic, which cities and communities across the world are trying to cope with and recover from.

Here is how. First, culture positively impacts community resilience by building social cohesion. Research shows that communities with social cohesion can bounce back faster in the recovery process. These communities are often well organized, have a shared sense of unity, and possess both “bonding” social capital among themselves and “linking social capital” to policy/decision makers and politicians.

A comparative study of Gujarat earthquake in India and the Kobe earthquake in Japan found that despite cultural and economic differences between the two countries, communities with higher internal trust, stronger social networks, firmer leadership, and better participation recovered faster. Another study focused on two communities in New York recovering from Hurricane Sandy, and methodically proved that the community that was more organized and had higher social capital was more resilient, recovered faster, and was able to secure their priorities.

Second, there is a direct relationship between the arts and culture and social and psychological well-being. Artistic and cultural activities offer many “ingredients of well-being” such as opportunities for social engagement, enjoyment, learning, mastery, meaning-making, and self-actualization. Furthermore, different modes of arts and entertainment can be utilized to communicate health information, promote behavior change, and advocate for public health recommendations. For example, artists are often engaged to produce media and music for specific audiences to promote health matters such as hand washing, healthy diets, and teen pregnancy.   

Intangible cultural heritage can equally serve as a resource for social and psychological resilience in the face of crises. The ability of communities to access and enjoy culture and cultural rights must be guaranteed in these circumstances as it can help them cope with the psychological distress caused by crises and ensures their well-being in the recovery process.

Third, as another important principle of the CURE framework states, fostering diverse cultural expressions offers effective ways of dealing with post-crisis trauma and reconciling affected communities. Local and traditional knowledge, particularly regarding agriculture and the environment, can furthermore provide a source of resilience for many communities who face precarious social and economic conditions.

Using this principle to facilitate collective healing in the post COVID-19 world, policymakers should understand the role of intangible cultural heritage and the cultural and creative industries in promoting sustainable and inclusive recovery with full ownership from communities. In doing so, employing and engaging artists and cultural institutions could play an important role in ensuring cultural diversity and fostering inclusive dialogue.

Furthermore, in the recovery process, policymakers should be cognizant of the role of civic infrastructure such as public spaces, libraries, and cultural centers. Many countries have acknowledged and promoted this in post-crisis recovery.  For example, in Colombia, realizing the value of culture in peacebuilding, the government has revitalized 428 cultural sites including many in remote areas with a $530 million investment over seven years. These sites represent more than a physical space, they are a commitment to generating spaces where children, young people, and the community can come together, where the social fabric is mended through culture, and where the construction of a more inclusive and peaceful society is enabled.

Fourth, an integral ingredient of culture is the freedom of expression for cultural institutions and artists, which is critical for strengthening inclusion and leaving no one or place behind. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the deep inequalities in cities, resulting in some places and people being disproportionately affected. In fact, slums and informal settlements—where social distancing is impractical and public spaces and infrastructure are insufficient, especially individual water and sanitation connections—can be contagion hotspots. Similarly, poor people, especially the 1.6 to 2 billion informal workers with irregular incomes and unstable jobs (many of whom work in the cultural and creative sectors) are especially hard-hit by lockdown policies and slowing economic activities.

Equally affected by the pandemic are the disabled, ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups. Strengthening economic and social protection for artists and cultural institutions and professionals can play an important role in ensuring the freedom of cultural expression and fostering inclusion. Arts and culture offer critical tools for narrative expression, community engagement, and creating experiences of collaboration. This helps post-crisis communities generate a collective “capacity for healing, resilience, and social cohesion.” Creative professionals and community-engaged designers can help guide and amplify the visioning and goal-setting process, so that communities are clear about their needs and no community is left behind.

The CURE framework argues that the city is a cultural construct, where built structures and open spaces are closely linked to the social fabric. Culture is also interwoven in communities’ sense of identity, connectedness, and the ability to bounce and recover after hardship, conflicts, and disasters. Adopting the CURE framework, communities should embrace a culture-based approach post COVID-19 to ensure that community needs, values, and priorities are central to the recovery process.

A post-COVID-19 community should foster social inclusion, build accessible public spaces and civic institutions, safeguard all forms of cultural heritage, protect and support culture professionals, promote diversity, creativity and innovation, and integrate the arts and culture sector into its recovery and development.

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Sameh Wahba

Regional Director, Sustainable Development, Europe and Central Asia, The World Bank

Ernesto Ottone R

Assistant Director-General for Culture of UNESCO

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