It’s amazing that the globe now shares a common narrative. I want to believe that as we are coining the story of our current time, COVID 19 will be a part of that. I’m working for global citizenship and global citizenship means exactly, that we understand we have more in common than what separates us. I see this as a tremendous chance.

Monika Froehler, Austria

Who are you, Monika? 

My name is Monika Froehler and currently I am the CEO for Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens (BKMC) which is a quasi-international organization that cares for empowerment of women and youth. The BKMC is led by the former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the former President of Austria Heinz Fischer. Via our projects and programs we are acting in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement for the empowerment of young people and women around the globe. What it says about me? It actually says a lot. Many steps in my career have actually led me to this point. I have been a civil servant for the Austrian and Portuguese governments, the United Nations and I have worked for the European Union. I have advised ministers, presidents, and several UN officials and I have lived in many countries for longer and shorter periods of time implementing projects that ranged from environmental interventions to anti-weapon interventions, most of the time for the United Nations. Apart from that, I’m a passionate musician. I love dance and arts and I think it’s a very interesting and necessary form of expression, so I’m happy to be able to combine that kind of soft power – that I consider to be very important – and diplomacy and education for sustainable development and the empowerment of youth and women.

Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens at the Forum Alpbach 2019, 25th August 2019, Tirol, Austria Copyright: BKMC / Eugenie Berger

What’s the situation now in your country? How is Austria handling COVID crisis?

Austria from the start was quite hard hit because of the closeness and vicinity of Italy. We are currently – after seven weeks of strict lockdown –in the position of opening up again. We were hard hit at the beginning, we ranked 9th to 10th in the world in absolute numbers of COVID infected for some weeks. But we are now 24th rank which is better in relative terms. Given the overall worldwide situation this is of course really worrisome. The lockdown happened when cases were already known in Tirol, which is a skiing resort area.

Many people from all around Europe were infected while skiing in Austria and that’s why Austria has been considered to be a super-spreader and blamed for the lax policies at the beginning.

But the fact was, that the government introduced strict policies  in the middle of March with immediate complete lockdown. It was a bit of a shock to the people, but authorities were very thorough and managed a professional communication offensive. It was really hand-holding of the Austrian citizens. And now these extreme measures are paying off and we are opening up already a bit with smaller stores, and will open up restaurants and schools over the next weeks, always keeping 14 days of testing periods in between measures, to pull the emergency break if needed. In the middle of May things should go back to relative normal, except from the obligation to wear facial masks and protect elderly peoples´ homes particularly carefully. 

Before, you could only go out in four instances

If you worked in a “system – relevant job”, to buy groceries, if you were helping someone in need, and if you needed some recreation time, but only with the people you already were sharing the living space with. You couldn’t meet friends and you should always keep the distance of approximately 2 meters, of course, not with the people that you were already confined with. And now these measures were dropped, so my friends in Vienna report the normal buzz on the streets and that it’s not anymore as eery and spooky as it was just a couple of days ago. People are getting back to normal, sitting in the parks, biking, chatting with friends. Of course cafés and restaurants are still closed, but it’s way busier because so many stores are open again. What remains are facial masks – you need to wear them basically everywhere in urban areas.

And there was this famous app that was supposed to track Austrians. It was a big controversy, wasn’t it?

It’s a Red Cross app and it’s only there on the voluntary basis, so only people who want to subscribe, can do that. Nobody has to register. But if you have been diagnosed sick, you can do that and all the people who also have this app and who met you, will be alerted that they have met someone who is COVID 19 sick. So basically, you inform the bigger community about your state of being sick or healthy.

Many private people are saying: my health data is sacred, and I will not share it even for the protection of the common good.

People were (and are) very resistant against the app, because also because it was funded by Uniqua – a big insurance company. There were doubts about the data reliability and protection, even though the government was assuring that the data will only be used in the weeks when the COVID is evidently a threat. More than 400.000 people in Austria have downloaded the Stop-Corona App as of end of April and it is constantly adapted in light of feedback by people and data protection experts. 

Copyright BKMC

Enough about Austria. How are you doing under the lockdown? You used to travel a lot and meet multiple people from all around the world on daily basis. Your professional life drastically changed in the past few weeks, I guess.

It changed, but I have to say it is a very welcome change. I truly – and it is almost bizarre to say – enjoy this phase. It reminds me a bit of the start-up phase when my organization was not yet built, and I needed to do everything remotely, from home and many times on my own. Right now, much of the work is of course substituted by digital communication. And it works really well!

We are eight people in our headquarter office and we’re all young, which means we have very swiftly shifted to online working. What was necessary at the beginning for me as a leader, was to give my team very concrete gathering points. We announced that we will convene every Monday, Wednesday and Friday just to hear how we are and touch base on relevant things, and on what is needed and whom we can help. There was lots of anxiety, insecurity and confusion at the beginning, but in every crisis situation you learn, that even if you don’t have complete information it is very wise that you put a next date, a next convening opportunity to give information again. 

Copyright BKMC

How did you do that?

It was clear to me that I needed to give my team some structure and that we would have to alter our modus operandi. Many of the physical meetings would now have to take place online and we have to devise the right tools. When is Zoom appropriate? When Skype? When are Google Hangouts best? And when is Microsoft Teams or WhatsApp chat sufficient? And my team was excellent, they knew some of the tools even better than I did and made suggestions.

Yet the first two weeks were stressful because this new way of operating meant many things had to be cancelled, our calendar needed to be cleared from all of the physical gatherings, events and conferences, our hotel and flight bookings had to be cancelled and we transposed whatever we could to the online world.

We encountered problems particularly with public administration (like ministries), as they didn’t have the same tools available, they couldn’t go on Zoom calls, because of data security risks to their own systems, so we needed to use alternative platforms. Some members of the older generation were also simply not used to online communication and phone calls were the only means of communication possible. Fortunately, we already had installed Microsoft teams for regular exchange of data and files. But if we did not have that in place, it would probably have been much more difficult. 

Your travel schedule has completely ended 

And I will not be traveling probably until June or July. And that is OK, because many of the conferences that were previously physical and personal, have changed to take place online. Some of the workshops have been more difficult online, because you cannot split people into groups so easily. But on the other hand, it creates certain opportunities of collaboration that were not existing before.

You can talk, simultaneously chat, whatsapp, easily view a presentation and connect people from all over the globe across time zones very effectively, because everyone is at home and has no excuse not to participate.

It’s also interesting how many tools that we have used before are now super applicable. Loom is one of them – you can do instructive, tutorial videos very easily and it’s for free. Another one that has really proven to be useful for our Zoom calls is Mentimeter , where you can pose questions to live audiences and answers are immediately converted into beautiful graphs visible for all. It is instant polling for people who connect with their mobile phones (anonymizing your data and identity). People use their mobile phones to go to type in some 6 digits and then they can immediately take part in polls, see nicely designed graphs displaying the answers people give to your questions. It’s like Twitter but on a different interactive level and tailor-made to your needs. It also has tools like “word cloud”, so for example, if you are asking the crowd “what’s your feelings that you associate with COVID 19” they can type in one or two words and then the algorithm immediately compiles that and you see a beautiful word cloud on your screens – terms that are mentioned more often are thicker, those mentioned less are thinner. So you get immediate statistics that you can use later on for moderating the event and directing the discussion. 

Sounds really useful for anyone who needs to discuss and process ideas online. And workshops are a big part of the portfolio of your organizations 

Also conferences, mentorship, fellowship and scholarship programs, as well as online classes. Obviously, online classes right now experience a hey-day.

You can advertise easily, and classes are picked up because people have time and they want good instructive content online.

When it comes to scholarships – in our system they require preparation, the actual physical being somewhere and then post-scholarship engagement. And interestingly enough, it’s really just a small physical part that needs to be moved under the circumstances. And we are flexible to say: once people can travel, we will do the physical part, but the preparation part can still happen. Fellowships similarly – when you’re a fellow with us, you normally get the face to face training in Vienna at the Diplomatic Academy, the UN and other organizations. You meet young advocates and change-makers from your region and beyond and you create a micro-project for supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in your respective home country. And the question which is super interesting for us now in COVID times, is: even if fellows are confined to their own living space – can they still continue their SDG micro-projects effectively? Is it independent on physical encounters? Is it still impactful? And what we have learned is that many of their SDG micro-projects, for example on women empowerment, quality education of climate change, can still be done and still make a difference and reach hundreds of people. 

Mentoring online is also doable. But the lack of face to face meeting makes the whole experience… different. How are you handling that?

We are the co-organizers of a mentoring program for young Muslim women who are seeking opportunities with all sorts of sectors, NGOs, politics, law, academia or even private businesses. Muslims are often discriminated in Europe and young women don´t have an easy start in their professional careers. We are therefore matching these young ladies with female experienced mentors. This year we planned a physical launch event for our 44 mentees and mentors to come to our Centre and mix and mingle. However, that was not possible, so this time we hosted the launch online and it worked excellently. Everyone dialed in, and it was a very interesting exercise, as all the mentors and the mentees finally saw each other and were matched in pairs. Now it is up to the pairs to do online talks, to get to know each other better and also plan what they could do together as a micro-project in the offline or online space.

I went away from this evening of discussing with 50 others so energized, because the ladies were totally eager to start. And that was cool! Contagious energy! Hence I didn’t miss the physical launch event at our office at all. 

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How about your private life? How are you dealing with it physically and mentally? For many people it’s a huge challenge and they really struggle being stuck for so many days in their houses 

I know it’s exceptional, but I am in the countryside in my family´s home and consider myself to be very lucky because all of the convenience that I have here ­­– with my family cooking for me and having nature at the doorstep. I can move more than I could in a city. Normally, I live in Vienna and I live on my own. That means that I cook for my own, sometimes with friends. When the lockdown happened, I moved to the countryside to my family’s place and I am now sharing the living space with my parents. Although none of us got sick, it was emotionally draining in the first two weeks because my parents are of an age that qualifies as risk group number one. Taking this responsibility of still going with them and potentially being a contagious person, was psychologically tricky for me.

And yet, they gave me all the ease of mind saying: we too could be contagious and then you have it, so let’s rather be together in this, than on our own.

And although we reassured each other, still in the first 14 days every little sneeze and cough was a panic moment. We also knew that if one of us here has it, we will all have it, because there was no way of isolating. Fortunately, all of us remained healthy.

Now you got used to it a bit, but it must have been a process

Let’s put it into three layers: logos, ethos and pathos. So, when it comes to the cognitive dealing with the thing, to logos, it was definitely challenging the first 2 weeks because there was just so much information and I felt so responsible not only to be informed in matters of my family, but also as a boss of my team, because many of the info bits came in German and I had to make sure everyone in our multi-cultural team understood.  I felt that I need to get to know the illness, read up, get the reliable sources, get the data right and feed that information to everyone who needed it on time. And the information inflow was overwhelming because the numbers went up and up. And so much was unknown.

Here we go to pathos, your emotions

I definitely struggled with this kind of potential responsibility that I have towards my parents and also with the looming danger of one of us getting sick. They would feel obliged to care for me and I would put them at risk with that. Because you can’t go to the hospital immediately, your condition in Austria needs to become really severe for you to be submitted to hospital. And you need to monitor yourself at home and isolate yourself as much as possible. But having seen videos from China and Korea and having heard from my friends, how they handle it, when they have someone sick at home,

I knew we don’t have the equipment, we are not trained to do it, and we literally don’t even have gear – proper masks, eye protection, disinfectants and protective suits, oximeters, etc. And the more news I watched, the more worried I became.

Fortunately, after some time, I managed to level down the news consumption, particularly the social media consumption, because I realized the difference between my parents, who don’t consume social media at all, and me. They were much calmer with the situation, they relied on TV and radio, because they consciously took on the information three times a day and that’s it. I was in a constant stream of information and that weighed heavy. 

What about ethos, your values?

I’d say that period has been enormously instructive for me, because it showed me again I’m in a very lucky position and I am incredibly thankful for that. I consider myself to be blessed to have family and nature and the comfort of working online and living in a country with a reputable health care system.  

But ethically massive questions still need to be dealt with: Like how can you protect specific segments of society, risking the economic well-being or even survival of many others? What are the breaking points? What is justifiable? What is necessary?

What traumas must doctors and nurses all over the world cope with? They decide on life and death prioritizing certain patients over others. Is some life more precious than other on the frontlines? So when it comes to core values, I think it has shown me ever more drastically, how important family is, but also how important your network of reliable sources of information is. There are people who are just acting crazy and there are reliable people. And it’s nice to draw on those who are reasonable and more scientifically minded, than those who go hysteric and frantic.

Professionally you analyze global trends, so you must have some forecast, or maybe just hopes about how the world will look like afterwards

There are four points that come to mind on trends. First, I believe it’s amazing that the globe now shares a common narrative, we have a shared story from very different perspectives. And even if you compare it to let’s say September 11th, or to the man landing on the Moon – both more US related – or to the Great Depression, these are all narratives shared by the globe.  

But the experience of COVID 19 has been totally indiscriminatory – rich and poor, North and South, black and white, it really didn’t and doesn´t matter.

I want to believe that as we are coining the story of our current time, COVID 19 will be a part of that. It is a common experience, and to me this is an opportunity. I’m working for global citizenship and global citizenship means exactly, that we understand we have more in common than what separates us.

Very hopeful, I appreciate that

On the negative side, economically we have not yet seen the end of it, but it will have long lasting ripple effects, that’s for sure. Analysts say worldwide it will be worse than 2008 and some compare it already to the Great Depression. We are seeing unemployment numbers soaring, we see businesses go bust, the predictions say that near future will be definitely in deficit, budget gaps and debts will increase. And if I had to forecast what will happen for certain I´d say the gap between the haves and have-nots, between the rich and the poor will widen. This disparity will become even more stark. And I don’t want to go down the path of prescribing there would be deflation, than inflation and we will have soaring unemployment for the years to come, but what I can predict is that, we will feel COVID, not only for one, two or three years. It will be the long term that we experience the ripple effects of it. 

Will the governments learn their lesson from it?

Governments are now more aware than ever that they need to do more for crisis prevention and on pandemic emergency measures. Not only when it comes to producing the equipment you need for such incidents in your own sovereign territory, but also the whole logistic lines that you need to have in place and coordinated. How do you optimize them to cater the people in your jurisdiction? How do you calculate intensive beds, the capacity that you need in hospitals for crisis like this? How do you actually react within hardly anytime and provide additional facilities and care taking centers? Are the universities and schools equipped to teach online? Can you really put people into confinement?

How much can you suppress economic activity for the benefit of a certain segment of society, because that’s the tradeoff that every government had to make: how precious is life and how precious is the overall economy? And when do you need to break the confinement again? How do you calculate risk with incomplete information?

I think that because now we have been again thrown in at the deep end, we needed to experiment with all of this.  I expect that as an outcome of this crisis countries we will become more aware of potential risks and better prepared for pandemics. I claim to say that Sierra Leone, that has experienced Ebola, was better prepared than others. The Middle East that had experienced MERS was better prepared. China, Korea and Japan and many other Asian countries that had H1N1 and SARS were better prepared. Because they had equipment, plans and strategies in place. I believe overall global pandemic preparedness will therefore improve and funds will be allocated more long-term on health. There will be a heightened attention to health care services, but again with the widening disparity between haves and have nots – services won´t be available for all. It also refers to the vaccines that will be developed in the future. I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t predict it, but probably some kind of vaccine will be developed by Americans or Europeans, and of course there will be a price tag on it. And I’m sure that it will be difficult to distribute it as widely and fairly as needed in economically weaker countries.

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And the fourth prediction would be?

The human capacity to be more digital will increase. We have now been confronted with it, and the average citizen on the street now knows about benefits of communication and business in the digital space more widely. From my 6 and 8 years old niece and nephew who are getting their teaching instructions now by a Google Hangouts, to my non-digital savvy boss (aged 82) who learned to upload a video message he recorded and sent the big file on WeTransfer. So the blessing of us being thrown into the deep end of needing to work in that situation means, that we witness a tremendous boost in matters of digital skills in countries that have the systems in place. I think this is also a massive thing that many elderly people, who traditionally went e.g. to the bank to do their stuff, will now do online banking because they simply must. I think that it’s a chance, but again those that don’t yet have internet will be losing out of all of this tremendous learning curve.

And do you have any expectations about yourself, your friends and relations? 

I thought a lot about it. Will my life really change utterly? In the short run, maybe. I will not be able to go on a holiday easily or sit down in a restaurant with my people. But I’m afraid it will be like the phenomenon of the water glass, when you’re super thirsty. You’re craving for that sip of water, and when you eventually get to the tap, the water tastes really amazing. But an hour later you have forgotten how amazing it tastes. I think it would be very similar with this. We will have these moments where we really appreciate it, and hug each other, and dance in the streets, but soon enough our short-term memory will not allow us to really appreciate it in the long run. It will be this glorious sip of water, an amazing epiphany and then I fear we will forget and move on forgetting many lessons much too fast.

What will you do first when it is over?

I will take a conscious sip of Viennese tap water, enjoy it and try not to take it for granted for many months to come.

Copyright Monika Froherer