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Congress in the year of the pandemic

SAT-Congress in 2020 Online

This year’s six-day SAT congress (July 26-31, 2020) will remain in memory as one situated in Białystok – which was, after all, the original plan – because it was managed by Pŝemek W. from the Białystok Esperanto Centre using Zoom, and because local features of the congress did relate to Białystok, which is now to host next year’s congress. Assuming, of course, that the pandemic subsides and that unrelenting animal exploitation doesn’t treat us to a new zoonotic disease. But this year it took place on anational turf – internet.

Although the current pandemic took many by surprise, experts have been warning for years that the likes of it are foreseeable. Many elected not to think about that, and even less about measures to prevent it or make it less likely. But that is another subject. This yearʼs specific challenges were in any case not foreseeable. SAT was not alone in facing them.

Participants, many of whom grew up before the age of computer technology, managed fairly well. After the congress they noted both pozitive and negative aspects of the unaccustomed meeting mode.

A few of the positive aspects:

The negative environmental impact of travel, in particular that of those who typically fly to congresses, was avoided. Travel costs, high for some, were saved. The internet congress “made it possible for people from the whole world (even those who for financial or other reasons never could take part in ordinary congresses) to participate and be actively involved, and it also facilitated integration of the organisationʼs membership”, making it “more democratic and socially equitable than regular, physically attended congresses”, as one participant put it. People were able to attend, who would otherwise have been kept away by the EU and its visa regulations.

Faces and facial expressions of participants were perfectly visible over the web, at least when cameras were turned on, and the presentation of graphic material worked. Opinions varied, however, when it came to sound quality and the basic suitability of the internet format for cultural features of the congress.

Some other negative aspects were noted:

Although the organisers did informative presentations about their city, Białystok, many local, “touristy” aspects of the congress inevitably fell by the wayside.

A few would-be participants faced technical obstacles, for example getting Zoom to work, that thwarted their desire to take part, although such problems can be expected to dissipate as technology develops and people learn to use it.

Satisfactory planning for people in all time zones was only partially feasible, and no technology will ever alleviate that problem. The situation was faced for the first time, and some rescheduling became necessary while the congress was underway.

Kongresanaro el pluraj kontinentoj

There was some informal interaction outside of the programme, but it was limited to short chats within the whole group after some meetings. On the other hand, people are now starting to have regular voice contacts during internet meetings that are possible throughout the year, making up for their infrequency during the congress itself.

The internet medium was not felt to be impersonal. “Even over the web emotions came through: after the film about the Barcelona election victory of Ada Calau and during Annieʼs interviews with young people blocked on Samos for one or more years.”

The public relations effect of the congress was not the same as usual: it lacked the usual local effect, while on the other hand it attracted – being free of charge this time – both SAT members and others whom one might never have seen at a congress otherwise.

What will future SAT congresses look like? The Programme Resolution tried to envision them: “Considering the success and the participation of fellow Esperanto-speakers from throughout the world at this web-based SAT congress, [the participants] propose that future SAT congresses be held by combining physical attendance with virtual modes of active participation, in order to integrate members who for whatever reason cannot travel and directly attend the annual congresses and meetings of SAT”. But what will a hybrid congress look like in concrete terms? It is still too early to elaborate details, but not to foresee that future congresses will be hybrid: attended physically and internet-based at the same time.

Gary Mickle


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