The language of a ‘new normal’ is being deployed almost as a way to quell any uncertainty ushered in by the coronavirus. With no cure in sight, everyone from politicians and the media to friends and family has perpetuated this rhetoric as they imagine settling into life under this ‘new normal’.
This framing is inviting: it contends that things will never be the same as they were before — so welcome to a new world order. By using this language, we reimagine where we were previously relative to where we are now, appropriating our present as the standard.
As we weigh our personal and political responses to this pandemic, the language we employ matters. It helps to shape and reinforce our understanding of the world and the ways in which we choose to approach it.
The analytic frame embodied by the persistent discussion of the ‘new normal’ helps bring order to our current turbulence, but it should not be the lens through which we examine today’s crisis. Far from describing the status quo, evoking the ‘new normal’ does not allow us to deal with the totality of our present reality.
It first impedes personal psychological wellbeing, then ignores the fact that ‘normal’ is not working for a majority of society.
The ‘new normal’ discourse sanitizes the idea that our present is okay because normal is regular. Yes, there may be public health challenges, but these are issues that can be managed. We accept life under the omnipresent threat of disease as ordinary.
But what exactly is normal about this pandemic? It is not normal for society en masse to be isolated, but if this is normal, then we are supposed to have control of the situation. Even if we feel loss or despair, we are expected to get used to it — accepting that this morbid reality is now standard.
Allowing ourselves to cope means not normalizing our situation and quickly moving forward, but giving ourselves the time to truly process it. Psychologists advise that it’s important to identify the losses we are feeling and to honour the grief surrounding us through methods like meditation, communicating our struggle, and expressing ourselves through art or by keeping a journal.
In uncertain times, the ‘new normal’ frame reinforces an understanding that the world and our emotions should by now have settled. Surrounded by uncertainty, it’s okay to admit that things are not normal. It’s okay to allow ourselves to grieve or to be scared. It’s okay not to be comfortable with what is going on.
In fact, all of us should feel uncomfortable with our present condition because the ‘new normal’ describes a reality to which many do not have access.
Not only does the ‘new normal’ framing inhibit our ability to heal ourselves, it constrains our ability to think expansively about fundamentally transforming society because it imagines a world that only functions for the elite.
Popular strategies focused on social distancing and personal protective equipment remains the remit of those with the means to fortify and seclude themselves. Stay-at-home orders cannot be observed by the more than 100 million people homeless worldwide.
If your existence is founded on a day-to-day income, you do not have the luxury to ‘stay home and stay safe’. In Nigeria, my country of residence, where there has been a federally mandated lockdown since 30 March, citizens have taken to the streets to protest that the ‘hungervirus’ will kill them quicker than the coronavirus.
With its emphasis on online tools to facilitate connection and escape confinement, the ‘new normal’ valorises the promise of virtual engagement, ignoring that almost half the world remains offline. The developed world accounts for 87% of individuals using the internet versus 19% in the least-developed countries.
In the United States, we see disproportionate COVID-19 deaths among the black and Latino communities, a fact that exposes systemic health disparities. In Chicago, my city of birth, approximately 70% of coronavirus fatalities are African-American even though we only make up 30% of the population.
As people of colour die, some demographics are not even making it onto the ledger; Native Americans, for example, have been left out of data on the impact of COVID-19. We also see gender struggles, as incidents of domestic violence, child marriage, genital mutilation and unintended pregnancies surge.
In India, the lockdown left millions stranded, homeless and hungry as they lost their livelihoods in different parts of the country and were forced to brave long journeys home.
The ‘new normal’ ignores these lived experiences of migrant displacement and exacerbated structural inequalities, fostering one-size-fits-all strategies based on privilege.
Inclusive policy-making would recognize that there is no such thing as ‘normal’, and would try to understand the unique realities of diverse stakeholders by collecting disaggregated data along gender, racial, disability, and other demographics to know the differential impacts of the pandemic.
Key decisions, like imposing lockdowns or restricting services, would be taken only after quick surveys and randomized calls to understand their socioeconomic consequences. Support would be given to organizations who can incorporate an intersectional lens
– for example, financial institutions that cater to women borrowers since they may find it harder to earn income post-coronavirus as was the case with Ebola in West Africa. And they would collaborate with local leaders on designing solutions.
Additionally, it would tackle multidimensional poverty by providing, inter alia, adequate housing and access to water.
For example, Colombia is using census data, economic and social surveys, and administrative records to target a ‘solidarity income’ to suffering families who are not already beneficiaries of official conditional cash transfer databases, to establish hyper-localized mitigation programmes and to identify pre-existing factors of vulnerable households such as overcrowding or the prevalence of intergenerational families.
These strategies can be part of an ‘active learning’ methodology that does not presume what ‘normal’ is, but builds insights that are data-responsive and geographically specific.
As the pandemic rages on it gives us a chance to reimagine the world by tracing history, not forgetting it.
We should revel in the discomfort of the current moment to generate a ‘new paradigm’, not a ‘new normal’. Feeling unsettled, destabilized and alone can help us empathize with individuals who have faced systematic exclusions long-ignored by society even before the rise of COVID-19 — thus stimulating urgent action to improve their condition. For these communities, things have never been ‘normal’.