6 April 2020, Rome - Italy’s celebrated Paolo Nespoli spent his 63rd birthday sharing with FAO’s global staff his experience of confinement as a career astronaut.

Hundreds tuned in from home isolation to watch him expound on the analogy between spacecraft seclusion and coronavirus-induced lockdown.


Nespoli was speaking as a guest of the VirtualiTEA series, organized by the FAO Women’s Committee and featuring Director-General QU Dongyu. The format fuses educational lectures and solidarity-themed social gatherings. It was FAO’s second encounter with an astronaut this year, after France’s Thomas Pesquet in February.


“Much as I’d have wanted to, there was no way to go out for pizza on the space station,” Nespoli said, in remarks whose tone ranged from the congenially informal to the movingly reflective. “After a while,” he added, “you just have to make that mental switch. I would have been dead if I’d stepped out. You learn to think of inside as a place of safety.”


Nespoli, who joined the virtual tea from his family’s residence in Houston, Texas, hails from Lombardy, in northern Italy. The region has been at the centre of the country’s COVID-19 pandemic. On a recent visit to Bergamo, Nespoli said, the equation ‘outside equals danger’ was brought home to him as vividly on earth as it had been in space. The Lombard city made harrowing headlines earlier in the pandemic, when army trucks lined its streets to relieve the pressure on funeral services. Nespoli’s remarks gained fresh poignancy as he described finding a box, back in Houston, containing faded photos of his late parents.


Estelle Page, a tea guest whose career at the UN is peppered with humanitarian crises including the Haiti earthquake, intervened to speak of the novel stress of facing an invisible enemy. From Islamabad, Pakistan, Faisal Sayed told of re-allocating the space in his intergenerational household so as to minimize the risk of contagion – but also of his attempts to re-create at home, for the benefit of his two small daughters, the classroom system of performance and reward.


“Maintain harmony at all costs,” Sayed urged fellow virtual tea participants. This was heartily echoed by ‘Astropaolo’ Nespoli: the principle had stood him in good stead, he said, during more than 300 hours spent in space for NASA and the Italian and European Space Agencies.


“Gravity shapes our lives,” Nespoli added. “Out there, you miss it. Everything just floats away.” He suggested finding value in de-familiarization. “Turn on your inner child. Suddenly there are all these exciting things you can do. Looking at the earth and not seeing borders. Realizing we all belong together.”


By his own admission, the crisis has caused Nespoli to spend more time with his family in Houston than he ever had. Yet during the first few days, his son saw him as a stranger. “No longer: he now comes and seeks my help with his flight simulator.”


The conversation revealed parents to be relying on their children as much as vice versa. Wadzanai Garwe, from FAO HQ in Rome, had just been discharged from hospital, after four months of a severe illness, when the lockdown struck. Her daughter, rather than return to university at Utrecht, is now with her, tending to her, cooking and coaxing her out of depression.


A dual emphasis on staff wellbeing and female solidarity informed DG QU’s intervention. He paid tribute to the women in his family, from his grandmother to his mother to his wife to his daughter. “In the China of my childhood, four generations would live together,” he said. He also invited staff to make the most of digital accessibility to keep in touch with family and friends. “I remember how 20 years ago, it would cost USD 13 to put through a three-minute call abroad. Now it costs USD 13 to talk for a month.”


Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo, who chairs the Women’s Committee, is among those putting technology to good use. With her family members spread across her native Cabo Verde, Portugal, France and the UK, she shared the joy of connecting with them much more – “almost a re-discovery”.


In a sign of the diversity of participating women’s experiences, Nora Berrahmouni – who joined the conversation from Accra, Ghana – has no children or immediate family. She has been turning the lens inwards instead, reflecting on her own purpose in life.


Speaking to the heart of FAO’s mission, she entreated colleagues to fundraise and give generously. “Use this time to think about every bit of your life and career, and about how to integrate all aspects of it: the self, humanity, nature itself with all living beings.”


As the clock ticked on, the ease of digital technology, participants’ sense of communion and the will to transcend the lockdown all coalesced as the “tea,” shedding occasional solemnity, became just that: a real dance party, held to energetic Zumba beats, across continents, age groups and personal circumstances.


See http://www.fao.org/director-general/news/news-article/en/c/1269942/