Beyond the Pandemic: Shape of the 'normal'

The new year 2022 will be like no other. The shock of 2020 and the grappling of hope-and-despair of 2021 will be behind us. The pandemic, which seemed to threaten civilisation earlier, will become a mere logistics problem. 

At the year-end party, we would celebrate modern science, for putting the shape-shifting killer genie back into the bottle. As the seconds are counted down, we would shed our fears and look at the future in its eye.

At that hooray moment, we will know that there will be no going back to 2019. Our lives, societies and businesses, may have just been reinvented in the shadow of the pandemic. The memory of the 'pandemic years' will linger on: Therefore, in all our hope, there will be sobriety; our fetting of the new heroes will embrace the mourning for the dead; in our new exuberance, there will be the anticipation of payback time. 

More than the outward changes, the changing ideas will matter more. The economic principles that we lived by - sound money and small government, as examples - have already been abandoned by its very own advocates. We are perhaps on the threshold of monetarism's very own inflationary decade, and, for different reasons than the pandemic, a roll-back of the expansive globalisation. 

While we know that talking about the future is a perilous enterprise, but the guessing game about the life after pandemic must now earnestly begin.

Quest for normal

We are almost normal. Britain, by The Economist's normalcy index, is at 66 (the pre-Covid normal being 100); after 19th of July, we will ban our masks and erase our distances to rapidly progress to an ever-higher level. 

There are people who are terrified at this prospect and justifiably so: The pandemic is far from over. But we know that the vaccination works and the virus, though mutating, may be 'running out of evolutionary headroom'. Getting used to it, with majority of the adults already vaccinated and in a season when people would be mostly outdoors, may just work. 

However, in other countries, where vaccination lagged behind, this quest for 'normal' has been fatal. After 'winning the battle against Covid', India and many other countries sank back deeper into chaos. The virus proved too wily even for Australia's isolationist bliss. Overall, the assumption that there is a normative 'normal', life as usual, which can be returned to at some point, has been proved false.

Hence, even after we learnt to live with Covid19, we may never again go back to that normal when we did not care about viruses and vaccines. Public health, after years of being pushed to the margins of policy, is likely to become a serious preoccupation. The East Asian passengers wearing masks on the plane will considered wise, rather than weird. A different model of national prosperity, one with health in it, would perhaps emerge, eclipsing narrower measures such as the GDP. In this, one would hope, there will be a 'new consumer', who would be more careful about the lines of nature that should not be crossed. Pangolin dinners will look less attractive and the 'new normal' will be a lot less like whatever normal we are searching for.

Maximum Government

This may, as Nicholas Christakis points out, start with the government. 

After years of indulging in 'the government is the problem', we have now got used to government everywhere. We have willing surrendered our privacy and happily accepted its support, even sometimes when we did not need to. In almost every country, governments legislated themselves into powers they never had, bypassed scrutiny like never before and created vast new ecosystems of beneficiaries. The usual checks-and-balances, in the countries where it existed, were seen as impediments to effective pandemic responses and were, therefore, set aside. 

This we will have to live with. Many changes that happened during the Pandemic were not related to the Pandemic: They were legislations that could not be passed in normal times, with the usual scrutiny. After the pandemic, such changes will become part of our furniture. The government expansion would eventually stop, when the money will run out: But for years to come, people in many countries have to live with pervasive government armed with huge amounts of data and insight. 

How this plays out remains to be seen. Some of this may come in form of a new new deal, as Biden administration is pushing for; equally, some of this may hasten expropriation of natural resources and hasten the climate crisis. But with surveillance society normalised and the consequent loosening of privacy standards, the cost of data will fall and new categories of businesses will be created. Finally, the long-dead promise of data eating the world come true and all those working in the field will suddenly get a freer hand. 

Zooming out

But this wouldn't necessarily mean that everyone would spend the post-pandemic years glued to the screens. Quite the opposite and the signs are already there: There is a Zoom fatigue setting in. Many different fields, telemedicine and online learning among them, have expanded significantly in the last 18 months, but equally, this expansion has road-tested the rhetoric and brought everyone back to the ground. Many services, Zoom and Netflix among them, are bracing themselves for a big correction; the telemedicine and online education sectors would do so too.

This is not all doom-and-gloom for Tech, of course. Match.com is loving it, as a new era of liaison and relationship, just like the roaring 1920s, dawn in. But this is specific to sectors and Just Eat or Deliveroo will have to pray that this would help eating in once the relationship mature. However, post-pandemic normal really may be a lot about meeting people in real life than the virtual presences with fake backgrounds.

The business of meaning

Nicholas Christakis, in his perceptive book 'Apollo's Arrow' (Little, Brown Spark, 2020), also forecasts a new search for meaning of life, just like 1920s. Whether this is going to be a transition from Tinder to Match.com (unlikely!) or becoming a Headspace regular remain to be seen; but this may equally mean going local. 

The business of connections really exists because the usual connections break down in large urban spaces. The realisation of constraints of life, which may fuel an immediate post-pandemic Tinder rush, may indeed be sobered by the shift away from city centres and rush hour. The pandemic lifted wellness and meditation from being an indulgence of the affluent to the prestige of a universal remedy, but life after pandemic may yet demand a lot more.

However, the 'new consumer' may usher in a new business of meaning, one of interest-based communities that help transcend the boredom of the local without necessarily requiring the leaping into the tube again. There are reasons to be optimistic about humanities and art, despite their current defunded status; like many meaningful things, their death at the university may mean acceptance by everyone else. 

Knowing what we don't know

All these and more are speculations and at its heart, there is hope. Even when we look at the terrifying prospect of data-driven omniscient government (as it happens, such systems always find their madmen), we are hoping that level-playing field of data will present new possibilities of escape. We know what we know: That bills for the pandemic have to be paid and a fiscal reckoning may follow. But it's time to start thinking about what we don't: Has the pandemic altered the city life for good? Is industrial discipline, which underpinned office work, gone for good? However, to even start thinking, one must discard the idea of 'normal' - that there was, there is and there will ever be a 'normal'! Only then, we would perhaps see what we don't know - even about our everyday life. 

Only then, we would see how the pandemic has changed us. 

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