Public health workers protesting in Barcelona, Spain
Bertrand Hauger

Skeptical. Overwhelmed. Disappointed. Exhausted. Helpless. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, healthcare workers have felt it all. But in recent weeks, doctors and nurses around the world have added one adjective to their list of feelings: angry.


In Europe, the mood has indeed shifted from the images of people applauding their medical heroes every night, from the balconies of Paris, London or Madrid. Even before some began turning the regular clapping sessions into pure kitsch, health workers on the frontline were wondering if it all rang a bit hollow.


In France for instance, a country once famous for its second-to-none public health system, that initial grumpiness has quickly turned into bonafide ire, with demands for better pay for health staff and reform of the country's hospitals escalating into tense confrontations with authorities. French President Emmanuel Macron — whose father was a neurology professor and mother, a physician — experienced it first-hand, as he got into a fiery exchange with self-confessed "desperate" nurses at Paris' Pitié-Salpêtrière. Macron conceded a rare mea culpa, admitting his government had "made a mistake in the strategy" of reforming the national hospital system, as Le Monde reported. Still, his renewed promises for in-depth reform have been met with skepticism by frontline health professionals. Partly to blame, perhaps, is the announcement in March that staff battling the pandemic would receive a bonus of up to 1,500 euros, which some saw as a band-aid measure when massive investment in the health system is required. "That's nice, we'll take it," as one of the Pitié-Salpêtrière nurses told Monsieur le président. "But what we need is salary revaluation."


Similar scenes of frustration took place next door, in Belgium — the country with the highest COVID-19 mortality rate — when the staff of Brussels' Saint-Pierre Hospital turned their backs on Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès during an official visit. Most of the silent outrage over the Belgian government's handling of the pandemic was directed at a controversial decree, in early May, that allowed unqualified staff to undertake nursing duties. Here too, new promises were made, with Wilmes saying she did not want to see a post-coronavirus world where the health sector was "reduced to what it was before," Belgian broadcaster RTBF reports.


Other scenes of rising anger were registered in Mexico, where hundreds of health workers deplored the country's lack of adequate protective material; in India, where critics note that Mumbai shortages of hospital beds weighed on medical staff after years of chronic underinvestment in healthcare; and in Egypt, where deaths among healthcare professionals is the most brutal sign of what one called a "complete collapse" of the medical system.


Back on European balconies, some have deplored how the clapping for medical workers grows dimmer every evening. So many doctors and nurses had stopped listening long ago.

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Society

Oui-haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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