Redefining “Normal” During and After the Coronavirus

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(Graphic Courtesy of The New York Times)

When thinking of American politics and society over the past couple years I think we can all agree there has been a trend of wanting to return to “normal”. From Donald Trump promising an idyllic vision of the past or Biden promising a return to Obama years it seems that everyone is advocating a return to some kind of past when things were “ok”. Hindsight is 20/20 though and the past is simply not an option anymore. The COVID-19 crisis this year exemplifies that. This crisis is estimated to potentially lay off 80-90% of hospitality workers (https://unitehere.org/press-releases/hospitality-workers-union-unite-here-on-impact-of-covid-19-pandemic-there-needs-to-be-a-bailout-of-the-american-worker/) and may even result in a 20% unemployment (https://thehill.com/policy/finance/488143-mnuchin-warned-jobless-rate-could-hit-20-percent-without-federal-response) in the broader economy. In a society where upwards of 60% of our population would be bankrupted by an emergency $1000 expense, this reality of layoffs and the simultaneous pandemic is truly life-threatening (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/23/most-americans-dont-have-the-savings-to-cover-a-1000-emergency.html). Boiling all of that down: if we don’t take serious action we are screwed economically and health-wise which impacts every possible sector of life. When faced with extreme non-normal problems like this we need non-normal solutions to reduce harm. Times like these force everyone to question the basic dynamics of society and the very root of why things are the way they are. The normal crisis responses of flooding the stock market with treasury money and passing payroll tax cuts simply are not enough to help out the average American or even the larger economy in the face of this crisis.

While dealing with the crisis right now is of the utmost importance though I think we should also consider how we will move forward after this event, more specifically how will we define our new “normal”.

Simply, there will never be a normal like we’ve had in the past. This crisis has exposed much of the rot and inefficiencies of our political and economic system. It will force people to advocate for change or face the life or death consequences of the current system. Understand that many people will not die and suffer directly from COVID-19 but indirectly from its innumerous consequences. Those families that are waking up today and having to think about how they will pay rent or put food on the table now that they’ve been laid off. The regular everyday people that may die in everyday realities like car crashes or having an infection because our medical system will be almost entirely overburdened by COVID. The thousands of suicides or turns to opioid use that will occur after months of potential unemployment that we have already seen in the past in 2008 and in the rust belt. These are the harsh truths and outcomes of our current society, they may be uncomfortable, but that is the function of the systems we prescribe to every day.

I think at this moment we need to obviously first be focusing on limiting the spread of COVID-19 and “flattening the curve” but still at a very important second is taking a step back and evaluating the basic propositions and institutions of daily life. How did we get to this point? Why does our political or economic system operate in the way it does? How could we maybe reorganize society to be “better”.  How can I make the changes I want to see?

In this historical moment, it is ok to be scared. This is also a moment of great reflection though. One that can be used by society to refocus our priorities and reorganize how our society functions to better ensure prosperity for all. The ideas of the past have only led us to this point with: historic inequality, a looming climate catastrophe, broad political dissatisfaction, and a viral pandemic threatening us all. It is time that we stop looking to the past and trying to regress ourselves to some rose-tinted history, it is time to inspire new solutions and look forward to how we can drastically change society not just on a surface level but a systems one. This moment will require much of us in the short term but even more in the long-term. It is a moment where despite our isolation we must focus on cohesion in helping and understanding one and another. Most importantly though, in this moment, we all have to realize that the ability to define society and to create a new better “normal” is in our hands, its just a matter of action.

– Satya

4 thoughts on “Redefining “Normal” During and After the Coronavirus

  1. Hi Satya,
    Thank you for raising this discussion. It is interesting how during this unprecedented time, we many of our so-called “normal” social practices, rules, and institutions dissolving, reminding us of their socially-constructed nature. It makes us question why certain things are the way they are in the first place if they can be just as easily done away with. For example, working from home is hard to arrange for in most professions, yet we now see many companies making the shift. Rules and deadlines have become loosened. Even the US government is agreeing to provide financial support to many families around the country. It makes me wonder whether after this pandemic crisis calms down, will people want to revert to the old normal, or will we create a new normal?

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  2. Hi Satya,

    Thank you for writing this piece. I definitely agree this is a critical time for Americans to examine whether or not our current political, social, and economic structures are sustainable or even humane. Looking at how other countries have handled the pandemic exposes a lot of weaknesses in our systems—for instance, why is it that 145 countries provide paid sick leave, while only 10 American states have laws mandating it?

    Over the past few decades, more and more Americans have advocated for universal healthcare, and this crisis further highlights its benefits. Despite having close proximity to and high traffic from mainland China, my dad’s home country of Taiwan has only 100 cases, in part thanks to its universal healthcare system that encourages its population to test. A devil’s advocate may argue they were well-prepared for COVID-19 thanks to SARS 2003. But South Korea, which only had three cases of SARS, also has universal healthcare. It administered more than 240,000 COVID-19 tests and currently has a fatality rate of 1.0%, which is lower than the global average. When we do examine countries with national healthcare that have high fatality rates, like Italy, we can still see that they have far higher tests per person than the United States does. Without paid sick leave, proper healthcare or insurance, millions of Americans are less likely to test, increasing the risk of infection.

    I worry upon seeing that several politicians seem to fixate on temporality. Some have proposed paid sick leave or universal healthcare—but only for our current times. However, even before this pandemic, millions of Americans suffered without either. When these times pass, those Americans will still be left to suffer if we don’t implement structural change—and this time, even more Americans may join them, as more and more Americans lose jobs or wages or spend savings for the sake of surviving during the pandemic.

    The 14th century Black Death lead to massive cultural and socioeconomic shifts in Europe. On the other hand, in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year, an account of the 1665 Great Plague, the narrator notes at the end that it seems as if most of the population has returned to their old ways and learned nothing. The question is whether the United States will choose to be the former or the latter.

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  3. One more thought: I wonder if this crisis will lead more Americans to question the notion of American exceptionalism. How can we be the “number one country in the world” if this country forces people to choose between financial stability or physical wellbeing? Currently, China and South Korea are in the midst of rapidly turning the tide in infection rates—just yesterday or today, mainland China reported zero new domestic cases. However, the United States has reportedly had little contact with the Chinese government in regard to handling the pandemic. Additionally, the CDC did not rely on any of the WHO’s protocols to develop its own tests, leading to a delay in testing as several labs reported that the CDC’s initial test kits failed to work. Perhaps it’s past time for the American government to put aside its pride and ask for help.

    It is possible to love your nation and acknowledge its weaknesses—in fact, I argue that healthy love necessitates such.

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  4. Hi Satya,

    Thank you for introducing the idea of normalcy amidst this chaos. I think it is important to keep things in perspective when trying to calm the nerves and anxieties of entire countries. One thing I would like to add to the discussion of a poor and struggling economic system is the further exploitation of already underserved schools. As we all know, almost all colleges and universities have shut down school and transitioned to online classes for at least some amount of the remainder of the semester. Obviously this is an unprecedented situation that has left many schools with no choice but to evacuate its students. This is not just a problem in higher education. Many districts have suspended primary and secondary education and moved to online classes. In districts where almost no students have access to internet or laptops, this is almost impossible. I worked at a nonprofit last summer in North Chicago where they are considering shutting down for the rest of the semester. Because almost none of the students have access to internet, the district is forced to give students “packets” of work to complete each week with no personal instruction. Students in these areas are already at least 3 grade levels behind in terms of achievement in reading and math and most of their parents will likely lose their jobs during this pandemic. Although it is not an option to keep schools open during this time, it further illuminates the disparities between the lives of students who have not ever had a chance to earn a truly quality education. Although economic downturn is an extreme issue, I think it is important to recognize the effects this pandemic is having on areas of the population that have essentially no access to support. For these people, “normal” is so far removed from what we consider normal in our every day lives.

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