We will need a new normal: Here’s how to make it

We will need a new normal: Here’s how to make it

Normal, as we last remember it, won’t be presenting itself anytime soon but we can rework the idea of what normal means

A man dressed as 'Yamraj', the Hindu mythical angel of death, campaigns to raise awareness on the importance to stay home and maintain social distancing during an event organised by Delhi police as India continues to remain under a nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in New Delhi on April 28, 2020. (AFP Photo/Sajjad Hussain)

The world, forced into lockdown by a dangerous virus, is longing for normal. But how will we know when normal has returned? We could wait for any of these: (a) herd immunity to be achieved; (b) a reasonably priced cure to be found and made widely available; or, (c) economic and mobility indices to claw back to pre-COVID19 levels. 

None of this will happen in the next 12 months, at least. That’s a long time to spend in limbo, and people will need straws of normalcy to clutch at much before that. So, no, logical as these indicators may be, they can’t be our identifiers of the normal.

There’s the option of declaring normalcy for ourselves once governments remove lockdowns. Given the pressure governments are in, some easing could start soon, but all the easing won’t happen in one go. The release will be slow, and it will be a while before pre-COVID19 status is restored (if at all). An unacceptable wait involved here too.

Also, lockdown relaxations like formal post-war truces and withdrawals of curfew orders, can’t mark the advent of normal. They can only be a signal to life to begin the walk back to normal, a nudge to individuals, institutions, and businesses to pick themselves and cajole others to so too. Given the high anxiety level the novel coronavirus has sparked and the possibility of its resurgence as relaxations come into play, it is difficult to see an anywhere-near-full restoration of normalcy with a phased lifting of curbs.

In short, normal, as we last remember knowing and seeing it, won’t be presenting itself anytime soon. Much has already been said about how things will never be the same, and how disruptive and painful the adjustment will be. It is all correct. 

Reworking the idea of normal

In the interests of our own well-being and sanity then, we will have to construct a new normal and reconcile to it. And since this will happen in the interstices of lockdown relaxations, checks on mingling and protocols for screening, sanitisation, and distancing will be very much part of the new picture. 

Encouragingly, a reworking of the idea of normal is possible. 

One, because, as we have said before, we just need to find a normal.

Two, because we are used to defining and re-defining, subconsciously or otherwise, our normals. Rapid changes in economics, science, technology, and politics have ensured that none of us has seen a stable, steady-state in our lifetimes. 

Ways we work, learn, network, travel, celebrate, and express and entertain ourselves and relate to our family, friends, fellow citizens, and governments have changed frequently. What we have experienced in our years on the planet is not a single normal but a series of normals.

Three, because the virus, in some ways, is only hastening a journey humans have already embarked on. Over the years, we have increasingly been embracing many of the things COVI-19 is said to be pushing us towards. Virtual socialisation, screen-based amusements, work for home, online shopping, online education, etc. If it feels different this time around, it is because we have lost our agency. In the driver’s seat now is a pandemic, and it doesn’t really care about speed limits and safety rules.

Four, and perhaps most important, because some things and the delight we draw from them have remained constant despite the multiple normals we have inhabited. A meal with the extended family. Adda with friends. A celebration with dear ones. Coffee at a regular haunt. A walk in the neighbourhood. A summer swim. A winter picnic. A quick getaway. A hop to the stores for a gift for someone precious – or as an indulgence for oneself. (I deliberately list out-of-home pleasures here.) 

It is in re-living these much-cherished experiences that we will find the cornerstones of our new normals. Temperature checks, spaced seatings, longer queues, restrictions on gathering size, and such will mean that these experiences won’t have their familiar texture, but the smell of freedom and the company of dear ones will more than compensate for that, still bring in the flavours we have been missing. It will be joyful, it will be reassuring, it will be different, better from now. 

Of course, like those emerging from convalescence, many will be tentative, wondering at every step if they are risking too much. For them, others’ cues will matter. Friends will embolden them to step out. Colleagues will draw them to the workplace. Co-parents will persuade them to pack the kids to school. Strangers will convince them to shop and travel. In a sense, we will all become part of a cue-giving, cue-taking chain shaping the new normal. We may not all have been in it together. We could still come out together.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer) 

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.