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Organizing EURAF2020 in times of Covid-19

A personal view by Francesca Camilli, EURAF National Delegate - Italy


“Happy New Year!”, “Happy 2020!”, “Happy New Year and pedal to the metal towards EURAF2020!”

Such were the wishes reaching me on New Year's Eve, full of hopes, promises and enthusiasm for the future, as every year. The last of these messages was one I received from a colleague who added fuel to the fire, expressing the hope that we would all be working together in the final rush towards the 5th European Agroforestry Conference: May 2020 in the beautiful island of Sardinia.

After more than a full year of work, I began 2020 in the best mood to face the final steps in the organization of an international event promoting agroforestry in Europe, for the first time organized in Italy.

A bit of anxiety, many hectic hours, but also excitement, curiosity and energy to work for an important occasion gathering so many people and friends from all over Europe and the world.

Supported by this positive tension, I was, and still I am, particularly glad and honoured to be at the core of a big network of researchers, experts and students caring for and supporting agroforestry and eager to attend the meeting in Sardinia. I could perceive the enthusiasm not just from attending the monthly EURAF Executive Committee meetings on Skype, or from reading the flow of emails asking for information to attend the event and visit the island, but also from feeling the overwhelming interest of people who simply encountered  EURAF2020 through social media.

But between January and February while frequent meetings of the EURAF2020 scientific and organizing committees were filling the daily schedules, worrying news started reaching us from the (not so) far east... on the internet and TV, scenes of people getting sick, infected by a new virus in China, incredible stories of hospitals being built within a few days to care the increasing numbers of infected people, and a lot of deaths starting to be reported daily.

We were all watching and reading the news, perhaps without really understanding what was happening. “Spillover” was the word which started circulating and it reminded me of the title of a book I bought some time ago but put on my bookshelf. It is written by David Quammen, a well known American scientific journalist I had appreciated from a biography on Charles Darwin. Many times I was just about to start reading “Spillover” ...

But no longer was “spillover” only on my bookshelf.

My colleagues and I were all following what was happening in China, worried but also in some way reassured that the situation could be controlled. We were monitoring it in order to consider possible decisions, as suggested by the WHO and the European and national health institutions.

On the 20th of February 2020. One Covid-19 case was detected in Lodi, a town close to Milan. Exactly that weekend I was supposed to go to Milan with some relatives, to visit the city. Saturday morning, the 22nd: what should I do? Should I go there or shouldn't I? News reports were annoucing that trains were delayed, and that all the museums, shops, churches and exhibitions were going to be closed. The situation in Milan was going to rapidly change. I decided not to go.

In the days afterward the situation escalated. The number of infected people started to increase exponentially, along with many deaths. Italy was on lockdown.

We decided to postpone the EURAF2020 conference. It was no longer conceivable to have it in May. Cases of infected people would start appearing in other countries as well, some weeks later.

Our quarantine started on the 10th of March and with it an unusual and unexpected routine of living and working. Regarding my engagement in EURAF2020, I felt as if something suddenly stopped me, strongly pulling me back while I was running at high speed.

Needless to say, EURAF2020 activities slowed down even though the Scientfic Committee's work and communication activities have kept on going.

I felt bewildered: staying in my flat all day long, working at home, as did most of us, strongly connected but socially isolated. Just some singing on our balconies during the first days of the quarantine to share this odd time with neighbours.

I must say that most of the work done in collaboration with EURAF and other colleagues to organize EURAF2020 is carried out remotely in any case. We live and work very far from each other, technologies are very helpful and I can't actually put my finger on so many differences between working at the office or at home.

But neither can I deny a strange, almost surreal, perception of the reality precipitated in these two months of isolation, probably due to the worries about the pandemic in my country and others in the world.

The feeling of uncertainty still persists, but I am confident in the ability of science to bring solutions and improvements to this situation which is affecting health and the economy all over the world.

The beggining of 2020 has put before us many big challenges.The state of the  environment is among them. The lockdown has brought back nature in urban areas, we can listen better to its sounds because of the lack of traffic noise and human activities. Air is much cleaner in this amazingly beautiful sunny spring and a special light comforts us despite being indoor all the time.

Challenges and many reflections: what can we contribute as agroforestry researchers, experts and advisors, to change and improve the environment? There is evidence that the environmental disruption, the disregard of the role of ecosystems and agroecosystems in regulating worldwide health can also be linked to zoonosis and even be responsible for increasing pollution and directly and/or indirectly exacerbating pandemics.

EURAF2020 will need to be partially reorganized. But I am sure, because of the Covid-19 experience that it will be richer in content, in ways of connecting people and tools to make us feel closer, and in ideas and projects to share. It will also give us a new opportunity for building solidariety and comprehension which are at the basis of human - and all the world's  - well-being.