April can be cruel, but there are reasons to be cheerful

The sun has been shining on my little corner of rural England. When the wind relents the days already feel warm, long and easy. But when the wind blows, icy swirls of Arctic air jolt you back to the present and bring to mind that famous line from T.S. Eliot about April being the cruellest month.

Eliot was not writing about the weather, per se, but a universal state of mind, how the early shoots of spring ‘stir’ the memories and remind us of better times. Hope here stands in contrast to the anesthetising comfort of grief when, ‘winter kept us warm/covering earth in forgetful snow’.

If these lines have a particular resonance now, it is hardly surprising.

They appear in Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land – a poem written during an earlier pandemic, deadlier than the one we are living through now: the Spanish flu of 1918-1920. Eliot caught the flu in December 1918, and he wrote much of his modernist epic during his recovery. It describes a world upended, first by war and then by disease.

For the thousands of people who work in meetings and events, hope is performing a similarly perverse function today. We know the vaccines give us a way out of the crisis, but a return to the life we knew – when conference rooms and exhibition halls buzzed with endeavour – still seems horribly elusive.

All around us, we see the proverbial ‘green shoots of recovery’, and yet I suspect, for many people, 2021 is proving even more (mentally) challenging than 2020, precisely because hope has brought into sharper relief the absence of what we are missing – the travel, the places, the people.

A roadmap to international travel would give us something more concrete to cling to than green shoots, and yet when we look at the geographical spread of Covid-19 and the mixed success of vaccine rollout programmes, it is clear why such a roadmap would be onerous to design without leaning heavily on Covid/vaccine passports, which are themselves mired in controversy.

Better, perhaps, to focus on the incremental progress that is being made.

So, instead of decrying the fact that we can’t jump on a plane and go wherever we please right now, we should cheer the travel corridors that already exist, celebrate the fact that Australians and New Zealanders will soon be crossing in the skies, and note that a travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong is still on the cards and that South Korea is now pursuing quarantine-free travel bubbles with other countries. We should take further heart from the incredible success of the vaccine rollout in the UK, for example, and what that might soon mean for travel and business events.

Elsewhere we should celebrate the fact that emerging data suggests vaccinated people do not, after all, spread the virus. We should be encouraged, too, that economies are recovering from the virus faster than expected. After all, a healthy economy is crucial for the recovery of international events.

With or without international flights, we should remember that, in some countries, meetings and events are already taking place and international association meetings, like the European Aids Conference, in London, for example, are still in the diary, albeit planned as ‘hybrid’ gatherings. And we should remind ourselves that the bidding process for international meetings has continued throughout lockdown and cities all around the world have been winning events for 2022 onwards.

As we mark Global Meetings Industry Day, we must cling to the fact that, slowly and surely, things are getting better. And while April is known for ‘mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain,’ we know that, with patience, sunnier and happier days lie in store.

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