4 min read.Updated: 01 Oct 2020, 08:49 PM ISTC.Y. Gopinath
We’re being advised to get used to a ‘new normal’ as a way to deal with the pandemic. But can anyone really define what’s normal or if it really means the same thing to everyone?
Rewind to 2 October 1947. More people died in the few months around that date than covid-19 has killed in two quarters of 2020.
Looking around India, you might have said things were really bad. Calcutta was in flames, with Hindus and Muslims at each other’s throats. While India was gaining its independence, Gandhi was not in Delhi for firecrackers, but in Calcutta, where he had started the last of his fasts to restore communal harmony. To the west, an estimated 12 to 14 million people were homeless, fleeing towards what they hoped was safety. Over 200,000 people died during Partition. Contagious diseases wiped out thousands of refugees in camps.
I wonder now if anyone, looking at that carnage and devastation, had reassured their loved ones saying, “Just wait a little. Things will soon be normal again."
I wonder if anyone back then thought this was the “new normal" that everyone had better start getting used to.
The words “new normal" have settled into conversation after nine months of lockdown, social distancing, quarantine, masks, ubiquitous hand sanitizers and pandemic anxiety. The grim message is: “This is here to stay. Stop whining and deal with it."
Get used to closing down your businesses, or having fewer customers if you managed to stay open. Expect your profits to sink while your economy bottoms out. Expect depression from too many Zoom conferences and more pointless quarrels with your spouse as enforced proximity reveals cracks in the relationship.
Expect to be fired, expect your payments to be both reduced and delayed. Expect to be turned away at hospitals if you have a fever because God knows you might have that dreaded disease.
Don’t expect to survive if you get covid-19 because the clinic may be closed or the doctor may be petrified. If you should need intensive care, don’t expect a ventilator.
This is the new normal we’re supposed to understand. After all, we’re all living it, aren’t we?
Actually, no. The new normal is a political hiding place when there is no solution in sight and things looks endlessly bleak. Calling it a new normal tells you to sit back, relax and enjoy the bumpy flight ahead. No meals will be served because last year we had no agriculture on the planet. And we may never land because our destinations may go into lockdown without warning.
There are two good questions to ask here. Were things blissful during the last so-called normal? And who defines this as the new normal?
For example, stay-at-home orders mean nothing to the world’s 100 million homeless, or the multitudes of our migrant workers suddenly jobless and homeless because of a lightning-fast lockdown that didn’t even give them a few minutes to pack. Their “new normal" was walking thousands of miles to their villages in distant states with their life’s few bits and bobs.
As for celebrating online connections, that’s normal only for the half of the world that can go online. Over 81% of people in the least developed countries don’t have that luxury.
Calling our times “normal" helps a helpless establishment suppress panic by asking you to behave normally in abnormal times. But, as concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl put it, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is... normal behavior."
Healing starts not by calling disease normal, but by naming it as a problem, reflecting on its genesis and finding new solutions. “Abnormal" behaviours that are part of the human coping mechanism came under study after the events of 9/11. They include:
Drowning yourself in media coverage almost to paralysis.
Avoidance. Pretending it’s business as usual; Obsessively focusing on daily tasks to avoid the pain of the present.
Remembering. Dwelling on pain from past trauma.
Opportunism. Price gouging, cashing in on tragedy.
Intolerance of people who tend to disagree with you.
And feeling blessed or cursed: Belief that a higher power is at work.
Fortunately, the antidotes to our times are as simple as the new normal is complicated. Healing, in body, mind and spirit, apparently comes out of looking back before looking forward, but also out of making an attempt to stay grounded in the moment.
These five thoughts guide me, and might help you:
There was nothing normal or utopian about our pre-pandemic world.
Normal is a racist and elitist word defined by those who gain something, even a reprieve, from the status quo. Don’t let anyone tell you what is normal.
Bad times should make you take stock. If your life is a menu, strike off the dishes that were never worth eating anyway.
Everything didn’t fail before. Salvage what worked and go forward with a handful of silver linings.
Tomorrow will be a newer normal than today. Try to make it even better.
C.Y. Gopinath is a journalist, author, designer and cook who lives in Bangkok
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