When things get back to normal
Updated: 3 days ago
For most Brits, bank holiday weekends are usually a ritualistic affair. Squeezing into a pub beer garden for a few too many drinks. Squeezing the kids and dog into the car for an inevitably stressful staycation. Squeezing onto an EasyJet flight (Ryanair if we absolutely must) to nip across the Channel.
But there will be no squeezing this year. International travel has ground to a halt. New laws have been enacted to ban public gatherings of more than two people and prevent us from leaving our homes ‘without reasonable excuse’. Instead, we lament our cancelled flights and written-off plans, console ourselves with a beer in the garden and collectively dream about what we’ll do ‘when things get back to normal’.
I hear that phrase a lot nowadays. I’m not sure whether it’s a genuine expectation that normal service will eventually resume – once the big, bad virus has been vanquished, driven out of town, never to return – or some sort of coping mechanism. A means of clinging to something familiar during these incredibly uncertain times.
Either way, we should all probably prepare ourselves for the fact that things are unlikely ever to return to normal – nor indeed should they.
The news and social media are replete with comparisons between the coronavirus outbreak and major historical events of previous generations, both those just beyond living memory and those buried deep in the annals. The Black Death and the First and Second World Wars seem to crop up a lot.
All three of these events caused society to reassess in many ways the foundations on which it was built. A quarter of the world’s population being wiped out by the Plague led to greater value being attributed to the working class (essential workers, if you will) and the destabilisation of feudalism in Europe. Women working in munitions factories, food production and hospitals – roles that would’ve been unthinkable for them to perform before World War I – propelled women’s suffrage. And from the devastation of World War II emerged the United Nations and modern human rights law.
Today, with hardly a plane in the sky, empty roads and most shops shut – scenes completely alien to this country in my lifetime – it seems unimaginable that we’ll just revert to life as it was, unchanged, as if brushing off a bad dream. The real question seems to be: what will change, and what won’t?
Some of the more obvious adjustments will simply involve continuing practices we’ve been forced to accept during lockdown. As employers scramble to update their tech – and finally realise that, yes, that two-hour meeting really could have been an email – surely continuing to work from home for those who can will gain much wider acceptance in the brave new world.
Then there are the larger societal shifts that elicit vigorous nods of agreement now but might quickly be forgotten once the hand sanitiser has been confined to the back of the store cupboard. Such as reassessing how little we value bin collectors, lorry drivers, supermarket cashiers, fruit pickers and carers – the oft-belittled ‘low-skilled workers’ on whom our economy, our society, depends to meet its most basic needs.
And finally there are the more abstract changes that still seem unfathomable. The ones that require us to rethink some of our most fundamental underlying assumptions about our relationship with the natural world and the other beings who inhabit it.
Zoonotic diseases – those caused by pathogens that jump from non-human animals to humans – are increasingly linked to environmental changes and human behaviour. The risk posed by viruses such as COVID-19 rises as we reach ever farther into previously undisturbed ecosystems. Deforestation is undoubtedly a major culprit, driven mainly by demand for beef (with the conversion of forests to pasture), soy (primarily to feed cows, pigs and chickens), palm oil and wood products, as well as mining and road building in remote areas. Scientists also point to our growing population – projected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050 – and dense urbanisation as exposing us to greater risk.
Whether we’ll muster the courage to genuinely reassess how we sustain and organise our lives in a way that is sympathetic to the world around us is unclear. After all, what could be more elementary to our existence than what we eat, whether we procreate and where we live? It would be far easier to point the finger of blame at others and excuse ourselves from reflecting on our own behaviours, which wouldn’t at all be without precedent: we blamed everyone else – Jews, pilgrims, beggars, lepers, even people with acne – for the Plague.
But what better a time than Easter to contemplate new beginnings – and to dream not of the resumption of normal life but of something even better.