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OP-ED: Don’t expect a normal life

  • Published at 09:39 pm September 12th, 2020
File photo of Picture of people in the streets amidst the coronavirus pandemic. RAJIB DHAR

It is better to be ready for more disruptions to come

Everyone knows change is inevitable. Yet we expect life to be stable and label it as normal. We get used to a routine so easily that we tend to overlook the imminent disruptions of life. The changes in life are gradual, no doubt.

This dupes us into believing that we are living the same usual normal life. Sudden disruption of this “normal” creates widespread chaos, and rulers want the people to start preparing for a “new normal” at the earliest. However, the critical question that stays unanswered is: What will a new normal life entail?

As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, “new normal” became a part of global discourse. However, will the fundamental edifice of our life that aggravated the impacts of the pandemic be altered? Or will we just adopt practices in terms of hygiene maintenance to limit spreading the virus to some extent?

We raise this question because in our observations, governments around the world are asking people to adapt living with the coronavirus, promising a stable and predictable future, but are not addressing the major pre-existing inequalities. We are even supposed to leave behind many of the practices that could have greater positive impacts on the world.

Will a ‘new normal’ ensure stability?

After the outbreak of Covid-19, during the past six months, we have passed through four distinct phases. During the first phase, people treated the lockdown as a holiday. We saw people vacationing in various parts of the country. People did not care much about quarantine protocols.

After a few days, we entered the second phase -- almost everything came to a stand-still, generating widespread panic. We experienced panic-buying, mob attacks preventing make-shift hospitals for treating patients, and protests against burials of people who died with Covid-19 symptoms.

Gradually, we came to terms with the number of deaths and new infections, and went ahead to the third phase. Governments tried to restore a pre-disruption time. The phrase “new normal” came into being.Now, in the fourth phase, we are facing an essentialization of the new normal and living with the virus.

However, there is essentially no need to phrase our lives as “new” and “stable.” Human societies continue to be in flux due to the existence of conflicting administrative principles, competing factions aiming to achieve similar goods and status, and aberrant individuals flouting accepted norms. Victor Turner claimed these to be roots of schism and change in African societies back in 1958. This is still relevant for every contemporary society.

The forced changes that we must hold on to

Besides disruption of life being inevitable, every crisis presents opportunities to alter the ways we live. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused immeasurable sufferings for us, yet it might change the world for the better at individual, societal, and global levels.

At the individual level, while the pandemic for many proved disruptive and painful, in hindsight it also nurtured affection, solidarity, and creativity. Devoid of a hustled life, many of us as families could spend more time together. Though the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted social life in many ways, it has had positive impacts on our family lives.

At the societal level, we adopted home-office and alternative work-shifts for ensuring social distancing, and it reduced rush hour traffic. Besides, many of us, in our effort to avoid crowds in public transportation, adopted walking and/or cycling.

Home-office practices have shown that a more dynamic approach to work is possible. Office hours can be flexible, and meetings can be organized online. Hence, even if the pandemic disappears, many companies may decide to work remotely. This will reduce pressure on commercial and housing spaces in already crammed mega cities.

The forced experiments with alternative modes of life could help with the environmental cause at the global level. The global shutdown has reduced CO2 emission for 2020 by 8%. If we can reduce the emission at this rate each year for the coming decades, we could check the imminent risks of climate change to a larger extent.

Why should we leave these “positives” and reinstate the older order of things as a new normal guise? The reality of a stable new normal is just rhetoric; we will continue to face crises and changes in the future as well. It would be naïve to plan for a stasis period devoid of new crises. History has taught us that nothing is permanent.

Paradoxes of disruptions

If we look back in history, we will find that major disruptions of societal dynamics, besides creating suffering, also led to key improvements. For instance, the digital revolution that we are going through right now has destabilized many of our lives. The invention of the digital camera has made the business of photo studios obsolete. The invention of smartphones made our lives ever more connected, but many skill-sets lost employability.

Transformations in the auto-industry and the spread of ride-hailing platforms are likely to make many people jobless while provisioning alternative income opportunities. Moreover, the complete shutdown of transportation during the pandemic, though it had an encouraging impact on our climate, also led to job cuts in the transportation sector, especially in the aviation industry.

During the last 100 years, we experienced competing society guiding principles triumphing over each other. The rise of a communist state in 1917 pledging equality for all resulted in total authoritarianism. A triumph of neoliberalism in 1990 promised benefits for all, but paradoxically we have seen starker inequalities.

What we should aim for

If we are to plan for a new normal, we must alter the ways we have been living as a society. The pandemic-induced shutdown has revealed, for instance, not all of us have equal luxuries of sitting back in the safety of home and not needing to worry much about having enough food. Many did not have access to health care.

It is predicted that millions of children will not return to school after the pandemic is controlled. There will be millions of new poor in addition to the millions of pre-pandemic homeless people in the world. If these forms of unequal access to resources are not addressed, the “new normal” will only be a facade.

Normalcy is the rhetoric of political power holders who assumed power vowing stability and predictability. The earlier people go back towards pre-disruption (pre-pandemic) rules of life, the more convenient it is for the elites to hold onto power. The quandaries of the new normal will bind people in a routine and make them wary of appreciating life alternatively.

We must accept that disruption and normalcy are two sides of human life. The future might be more disastrous than ever. The revolt of the masses could be to hang onto the positives that the pandemic has forced us towards, and brace for another interruption in the future. We should rather be ready for another disruption instead of expecting a “normal” life, so to speak.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan and Shaila Sharmeen are anthropologists and teach at the University of Dhaka.

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