At the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the associated lockdowns, it seemed like things would never wholly go back to how they were. We discovered that people could work efficiently from home without being monitored in the office. Students, some of whom had previously moved across the world to attend university, could learn effectively via online classes. Zoom calls with friends and family have turned out to not be that bad an idea.
People hypothesized that after the pandemic was over, there would be a “new normal.” This would include not only greater use of technology and remote working, but improvements in the inequalities and unfairness that was exposed by the coronavirus. For example, as a result of a consensus that care workers, who are often on low incomes, deserve better recompense for the service they do for the elderly and society. The pandemic has disproportionally impacted women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and those in insecure jobs. It was hoped that the “new normal” might remedy some of the longstanding structural reasons for why these groups have fared particularly badly in the pandemic. More generally, it was hoped that the “new normal” could herald a kinder society more focused on wellbeing than wealth.
A New Social Contract Amid a Crisis
At the outset of the crisis, we were told that it could last a long time. However, only in the last few months has it really begun to hit home that we are in this for the long haul. Many countries that had emerged from lockdowns are now shutting down again, at least partially. Of course, the impact of the pandemic is very different around the world. Many East Asian countries have seemingly overcome it, while the US, Europe, Brazil and India continue to be ravaged by it.
In countries where people are still suffering from COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — the “new normal” is very distant. More pressing is how we accommodate to living with the coronavirus and the associated restrictions for the coming period. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that coronavirus restrictions could last a further six months.
Preparing for the “Now Normal”
This is a practically and emotionally challenging task, yet the extent and success with which society has already adapted to the coronavirus are impressive. We now need a more concerted and focused effort to build on this start. This will mean making our “now normal” not just doable but sustainable. We need to ask ourselves whether we can sustain new ways of doing things not just for a few weeks, but many months.
So, how do we make the “now normal” work?
First, we need to hone the tools, techniques and skills needed in the “now normal.” This could include, for example, new habits about checking in with colleagues when working remotely to replace the informal interactions of the offices, new ways for colleagues to socialize online and restructuring distance-learning courses to make them work better. These are just a few examples of where new ways of doing things are needed among a plethora of areas where we need to adjust to the “now normal.” Many of these approaches were already tried and tested in certain settings before the pandemic. The task now is to roll these out across society.
Governments, businesses, NGOs, the media and academia need to play an active role in developing new ways of operating and thriving during the pandemic. This will require the sharing of knowledge and ideas, as well as all of us adopting an inquisitive and creative mindset to meet the challenges that the crisis is throwing at us.
A second aspect of the adjustment to the “now normal” is dealing with the economic fallout of the pandemic. Government intervention that sticks a band-aid on problems will not suffice when sustained support for the economy and jobs over a prolonged period is needed. At the same time, we need to think about how we can create new jobs to replace those being lost and support workers to transfer between these. There is a role for government here in strategically charting a course not only to support the old economy but to build a new one — now.
Finally, we need to make sure public services adapt to deal with the “now normal.” This should include directly combating the pandemic but also ensuring that, for example, the public continues to get sufficient access to all types of health care — from cancer treatment to physiotherapy. Schools clearly face a huge challenge to ensure that children receive a good education in a way that is safe for them and society more widely. Certain public services, such as mental health services, given the impact of the coronavirus on mental wellbeing, will need to be beefed up. While the public sector faces huge challenges from the pandemic, an effective response to the coronavirus during the “now normal” is also an opportunity to strengthen the legitimacy of the state as the only body that can guarantee support when society is faced with challenges of the scale of the current crisis.
There are more questions than answers about the “now normal.” Yet many of these can be approached in a systematic and scientific way. In May 1932, during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt — who was running for president at the time — called for “bold, persistent experimentation.” We need a similar mindset and approach to shape the “now normal.” While we are likely to be in this situation for quite some time, we have the power to define and make the best of it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.