What really is 'return to normal'?


What really is 'return to normal'?


Wednesday, April 22, 2020

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There has never been a time in living memory that we have witnessed such a sudden and total shutdown of almost every country in the world at the same time. Aside from the usual prophetic doomsayers, if anyone around October or November 2019 had said that the world would experience, in February 2020, what we are seeing today, such a person would have been referred for serious mental evaluation. The end-of-year doomsayers we can understand, as we have become accustomed to their yearly ritual. But no person wanting to be taken seriously would have dared to utter such a prediction.

Yet, here we are. The entire world has ground to a halt. Aeroplanes of the major airlines around the world have been parked indefinitely as airports are virtually shut down. World tourist resorts and hotels have been shuttered. Millions of people have lost their jobs, with millions more expected to do so. Places of worship of every religion have been shut with only a few voices being raised in different parts of the world against this. Schools, colleges, and universities around the world have been closed with the Internet proving to be an indispensable tool for learning in these trying times. Major sporting events, including the much-anticipated Olympic Games, have been postponed or cancelled.

Governments are in a tailspin as leaders seek to deal with this unprecedented situation. How they deal with the crisis will highly determine whether they will be re-elected to office, especially in countries with strong democratic traditions. It is difficult for anyone to mask the enormity of the experience that the world is going through. Yet, there are those who behave as if this tragedy, that has brought such drastic changes to their lives, is something not to be taken seriously. Many still flock to beaches or otherwise defy governmental authorities who literally plead with them to maintain the necessary safety protocols.

Certainly, many have become impatient and think that they can soon return to some normality in their lives. Normality seems to mean returning to life pre-COVID-19. But the prognosis for such normality does not seem to be on the horizon. The experts tell us that we will be dealing with the novel coronavirus for a good while, until some form of treatment or vaccine against the virus is found. But even if this should happen in the next year or two, it is clear that what some people call normal will never materialise. To me, it is clear that the virus has altered our lives for good. By the time it is fully suppressed, or vaccinated against, it would have taken a serious toll on our collective psyches, not to mention our social and economic way of life.

Globalisation and the logistics of producing goods cheaply in other countries will have to be seriously re-examined against the background of the threat to supply chains posed by a pandemic such as this. Geopolitical realignments are perhaps already taking place as more powerful nations seek to take advantage of the crisis. Nationalism will become more trenchant as countries seal off their borders against perceived threats from other nationals.

We must seriously ask, what really is normal? And, to what do we really want to return. Apart from the foregoing, the virus has shown up the inadequacies of the health infrastructure in many countries and their incapacity to deal with a pandemic. For example, in the USA, and especially in the New York metropolitan region, the ravaging effects of the virus in black and brown communities has been jarring. It has shown up the inequities and iniquities in the health system that has been there for many years. What does return to normal really mean for people in these communities? What does it mean for nursing homes throughout the country and the vulnerable populations that they house? What does it mean for the millions without health insurance and those who have been pushed to the periphery of American society?

In Jamaica, what does return to normal mean for those living in rotting inner-city communities in the Kingston metropolitan area? What does it mean for people getting a liveable wage and enjoying the dignity of work and a dignified life that such wage should help to guarantee? By now, dear reader, you will see that there are certain 'normals' to which we will never want to return as a society. Perhaps the virus has begun to awaken us to the things that need to urgently change, and imbue a resolve to collectively do something about them. If any of these inner-city communities should become hot spots for COVID-19, then we can see how much the health of all of us depends on that of the poorest among us.

Bringing the question closer home, what does return to normal mean for your own personal life? Having been forced to face family, self, and other relationships in a way that you never had to, what conclusions are you drawing about how you live your life? We may resist this kind of question and dismiss it as a mere philosophical abstraction. But we are creatures of habit who can hardly tolerate any disturbance to our personal or societal status quo. Very few can abide any seismic or tsunamic shift to their way of life. It is important, therefore, that you ask yourself the question: To what do you want to return?

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com.

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