As the cloud of the COVID pandemic slowly and stubbornly fades from our daily lives, our communities are returning to public events. It is similar to a community reappearing after a storm that drove everyone indoors and forced an unnatural state of isolation. The pandemic forced us to explore new ways of working, eating, socializing and communicating. The aftermath of COVID is analogous to a tide receding or a swamp draining and the discovery of what remains in the absence of the water. Humans have an instinct for survival that has been a hallmark for centuries. The threats to our survival, whether natural or man induced, have always given birth to new branches that adjust to these obstacles. It is called the continuum of our civilization. During this most recent viral challenge, we were forced to abandon many of our natural behaviors – socialization and communication. The advancement of technology played a major role in providing alternatives in order to continue some semblance of our economy and social relations. There is nothing that replaces the quality of face-to-face contact, but in its absence, tools were available that enabled much needed interfacing. New words were quickly added to our daily vocabulary such as “Zoom” and “streaming” that became important methods of maintaining some semblance of normalcy.
The Armenian community in the United States and elsewhere was, of course, severely hampered in its mission of providing spiritual, educational and social services to the general population. Almost overnight, traditional gatherings that we often took for granted, such as bazaars, badarak, Sunday School and cultural events were canceled for a period of time and slowly reappeared with significant constraints. Social distancing, vaccines, masks and other protocols, unheard of a year earlier, became a daily practice in order to restart what had been shuttered. Our communities have slowly returned to a likeness of the previous state as we learn to live with COVID in our society.
As the tide recedes, many of the protocols and alternatives have been retired as public buildings and cultural centers reopen. My wife and I have personally witnessed the cancellation of a Broadway show, attending with masks and vaccination cards, masks only and now a relatively unconstrained activity. In our communities, it has been challenging to find a protocol that the populace is comfortable with since our communities are diverse in age and views. Our institutions have done an admirable job of following local and state guidelines to return to public events and celebrate badarak. In a situation as complex as COVID, there will always be a variety of opinions as to whether our policies were overly restrictive or lenient. At the end of the day, individuals make their own decisions based on their comfort levels and the slow return of our infrastructure reflects that struggle.
What has remained in our churches and many organizations is the ability to “livestream” the event on Facebook or some other platform. When the pandemic emerged in early spring 2020, the use of streaming technology was a lifesaver to provide programming to a community that had been suddenly cut off from a conditioned routine. I will offer two such examples. The ability to livestream badarak on a social platform allowed the church to engage the faithful, albeit virtually, and to minimize the number of live individuals (essentially the priest, altar servers and choir). As we learned more about how to contain the virus, certain protocols were introduced, such as distancing, masks and controlling Holy Communion, to allow the return of the faithful. In a relatively short period of time, virtually all parishes in the region began offering livestreaming of the badarak with in-person protocols. The use of this technology was tremendously beneficial, not only for the continuity of providing a spiritual outlet, but also for providing access to the badarak for those unable to participate. Imagine the joy for those who cannot get to a church to be able to hear the sweet hymns and participate in praising our Lord according to the traditions of the Armenian church. The one area that cannot be fulfilled with virtual attendance is the receiving of the Holy Eucharist. There have been opportunities, however, when the priest will subsequently visit to offer communion to the individuals. Of course, with the introduction of any technology, there is the risk that it will be used in unintended ways. During the peak of COVID, the majority of those attending badarak used the virtual method. As a return to in-person services began, many did not return either out of fear or general convenience. We have to keep in mind that everyone’s comfort level with this virus operates at different levels. Unfortunately during the pandemic, we got very used to being at home for everything. People who had hardly heard of Netflix became routine “binge watchers.” Using our computer to attend badarak was the only option and for many has become a habit that’s hard to break. The church has struggled with this in my view. On the one hand, a great service is being provided to those previously removed. In fact, on any given Sunday morning, you can pick a number of churches “to attend.” This week, I’ll “go” to the cathedral in New York and next week my home parish…all from my living room.
When the mobile phone was introduced, it began as a wonderful option for emergencies and other necessary communication. It has evolved into an extended appendage for most people who cannot function without instantaneous responses to the latest text. A valid question to ask is whether the livestreaming is also constraining in-person attendance while opening other doors. A paradox? This is a very serious question that requires the leadership of the church to analyze and perhaps introduce some adjustments to keep it focused on the benefit.
Another example in our community is live programming. When the pandemic hit, livestreaming was expanded by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) as the singular method of providing programming on Armenian Studies. Prior to the virus, there had been limited use of the technology. Its application exploded during the most constrained days of COVID and revealed some interesting results. With live programming no longer held at NAASR’s Vartan Gregorian Building in Belmont, lecturers and panelists could participate from their homes, thus reducing expenses and simplifying the administrative process. Additionally, those attending could register from virtually anywhere in the world where internet access was available. As a result, the number of programs and participation significantly increased. As a result of feedback mechanisms, there seemed to be no appreciable reduction in quality or attendee satisfaction. This has been attributed to the improvement in internet quality, functionality of the Zoom platform (seminar format, Q&A function, etc.) and ability to literally maintain all the experiences of an in-person function except face-to-face contact. This process contributed to an explosion in the programming offering, new collaborative options and an exciting use of resources from around the globe (including Armenia, Artsakh and Europe). The new NAASR building remained closed while this programming expansion took place. In April, the center reopened to programming and other public activities. At this point, it is referred to as “hybrid,” in that both in-person and livestreaming are offered. The question remains as to what the impact is of livestreaming events for people who are able to attend at the center. There is no doubt that the expansive benefits are clear as new audiences are receiving the benefit of the technology. Will the in-person attendance return to pre-pandemic levels in addition to the geographically diverse audience? That would be a clear win for the technology and the incremental benefit for the mission of Armenian studies. We will see in the coming academic year as hybrid programming is fully implemented.
It is a tribute to the resilience of our communities that they responded and adapted in such a manner. Armenians are very traditional, and change is difficult. But, we are also survivalists who have an instinct for adapting when threatened. There is no playbook for the COVID or post-COVID period. We are feeling the effects of reaction as we see supply chain shortages and staffing issues across the board in our nation. Those who anticipate correctly emerge stronger from this debacle. It is critically important for our communities to return to a robust state with in-person participation. It is equally important to embrace the improvements we have discovered during these dark days. We have found ways to reach new audiences. It is up to us to maintain the gains while recovering what we have lost. We have discussed in this column new educational methods to link the home and Sundays with technology. Now would be an opportune time to take what we have learned into new programs that address our pre-COVID challenges (which are still there). If we choose to, we can almost view the post-COVID window as resetting the clock to address new ideas as our infrastructure was frozen for a period. This is not a time for us to breathe a sigh of relief that this is over, and we can return to the old ways. To varying degrees, the old ways are gone. The “new” normal is here.
The challenge for our community leaders is to accept the new opportunities created by technology while retaining the traditional audiences. Difficult times always reveal silver linings if we look hard enough. Our alternative methods of functioning gave us the ability to reach new segments of our scattered nation. This is a blessing that should not be lost by simply returning to pre-COVID norms. These discoveries will strengthen our communities. It is a double edge dilemma, but incremental gains come with the need for creativity. Technology should not be used as a means to make us less interactive or less communal. It is a tool for improving communication where obstacles such as distance and physical limits have prevented access. This must be emphasized so we don’t become a community of remote participants. It should not be an “either or.” We should embrace this as a challenge and advocate for growth and prosperity.