Anyone seen the New Normal yet?
We keep hearing that the world will never be the same again. Yet half the world seems to believe the 'good old days' will be back soon
Two old men were sitting at a park bench in Shivaji Park, six feet apart.
Yes, I know this is exactly how my last column started, but these two old men are park regulars. "So," said the first man, "do you think we'll be around?"
"Around when?" asked the second.
"Around when things return to normal?"
"How will you know it's become normal?"
The first man thought about this. "Perhaps," he said, "when the guy selling pani puri stops sanitising his hands between customers?"
The second man sighed. "We'll both probably be long gone."
No one says it out loud but everyone assumes that one day, not far away, things will go back to what they were. 'Normalcy' will return — roads will be chaotic with cars again, horns will blare, bars will be open till late, builders will be back to bribing municipal officers, and the skies will be reassuringly murky again.
I have bad news for you. We're not going back. I don't know what the New Normal will look like when it comes, whenever it comes but we have crossed an invisible line.
A very different world awaits us. Here's why I think this —
1 We've never been attacked as a species before and by an enemy we had no defence against. To the coronavirus, we are no more than a species, like dogs. The 7.8 billion of us are that weird species which wear clothes, believes it is supreme, systematically kills its own without cause and preys on the poor, the helpless and children.
To the coronavirus, every one of us, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, oppressor or oppressed, is fair game. That's never happened in human history, and we are terrified. We just want to go home to mommy.
2 We've enabled the virus at every step. Our appetite for animal meat enabled the human-animal contacts that bred the virus. Our relentless travelling spread the virus. Our social habits like shaking hands and kissing disseminated it. Our penchant for sharing rumours and sensational falsehoods help create confusion about the coronavirus.
Worse — our scorn for reason and science, our hubris and greed, our belief that wars and weaponry need far more investment than health, our profound ability to deny and distort factual reality, all these gave the coronavirus a free pass into our homes, workplaces and daily lives.
3 This is only the first of many pandemics. Our ways of living have created our way of dying. But because our lives are rooted in ignorance, denial and politicisation, we will be unprepared for the next one. We have already entered an age where, like cyclones, pandemics will arise again and again.
Here are some deep changes we are already seeing.
Oil prices have dropped. With nothing moving on the roads or in the skies, petrol demand has plummeted and with huge oversupply, prices have dropped while storage depots have filled up. The sheer wastefulness and toxicity of travel stands exposed.
We've become Zoomers. Working from home has revealed how unnecessary offices were in the first place for many employees. Conferences, court hearings, graduation ceremonies, marriages, funerals and love affairs, all have begun taking place using Zoom-like apps. Travelling to a meeting or office will become the exception as Zooming becomes the norm.
Office spaces will change. If seven out of your 10 workers can do what they do from home, why rent such a large office ? Smaller office in cheaper locations, coupled with fewer people travelling to work each day will lead to reduced traffic, less pollution, more time spent at home working or with loved ones and new ways of accounting for work time.
Migration makeover. Will the millions of migrants brutally confined, underfed and treated like resources rather than human beings come back to the cities that brutalised them, with the shine of urban living suddenly gone? The reduction of domestic help will change the ways in which we maintain our homes and selves.
We have seen the toxic incompetence of our leaders. Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, even our own leaders — powerful men clueless against the virus, and helpless bystanders to millions of deaths.
Coronavirus will not disappear. Even if a vaccine comes, it will be useless against the next pandemic that arises.
Most importantly, because we've already seen a better world, we can't go back to the one we had. Coronavirus has shown us the world we have created, but also a better one with bluer skies, stars at night, burgeoning life, more empathy, caring and more connected ways of being. That vision cannot be dismissed.
Those are some of the things that will start the avalanche of change. I believe our lives will become immeasurably saner and better.
Till then, like a pugnacious ghost in a cartoon movie, the virus will be around you and that will be the new normal when it comes. You'll never know where the next punch will come from.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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