Paul O’Mahoney writes: From early in the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had bandied about ad nauseam the phrase “the new normal” to describe living with the battery of restrictions and precautions to limit the virus’s spread. It did not take long, either, for the meaning of the phrase to shift to the envisaging of the post-pandemic world, which systems might revert to their previous form and modes of functioning and which might be permanently changed, or how behaviours, beliefs, attitudes and priorities might be affected, for individuals and collectives. What would be our “new normal”?
As we pass the anniversary of the first announcement of lockdown in Ireland, one of the most commonly observed malaises, along with “lockdown fatigue”, “Zoom fatigue” and general demotivation, is a curious sense of uncertainty, and ambivalence, about the future. The pandemic seems to have induced a peculiar, vague but very widespread feeling of disorientation. It manifests as a partial inability concretely to envision the future beyond the pandemic’s end, uncertainty about the real value of the things that had previously occupied a person’s time, and ambivalence as to whether one would now welcome a complete reversion to former normality.
There is more than one reason for this. One I suspect is a deep, scarcely conscious foreboding; a fear that Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for a much worse pandemic to come. We have had SARS, H5N1 avian flu, swine flu and coronavirus scares in the space of a little under twenty years, fortunately with only the last making a lasting impact felt globally. Had the next plague only very slightly higher transmissibility and incidence fatality rates than COVID-19, the effect would be catastrophic. The worry that the next deadly virus is already mutating somewhere, waiting to transfer to humans and wreak greater havoc on the world’s health and economy – and that we are not prepared for it – makes the envisaging of and investment in the future less straightforward.
A more immediate reason however is far simpler. The first source of this disorientation can be sought in habit, or more precisely in the breaking of habits. Researchers of habit vary widely in estimates of how long it takes to break one – a common estimate is about a month – but clearly most of the population has now had time enough to be weaned off a whole range of habitual behaviours. Habits may be broken through effort, if they are negative, or simple change of circumstance – a person changes job, works in a different area, and so no longer habitually visits a particular coffee shop. While they persist, these habits are reassuring; but once broken, whatever comfort they seemed to offer is quickly forgotten (or, in the case of negative or harmful habits, often despised). In fact, once one has left behind some habitual behaviour, even a neutral one, the very fact that it belongs to the past and not one’s future would make resuming it odd and burdensome.
Though it might in no clear sense be so, reversion to any habitual behaviour very often feels like regression. It will be familiar to anyone who has spent an extended period abroad how easily one abandons entirely certain of the most entrenched habits of home, for example watching television or drinking tea. If asked, when still away, whether on returning to Ireland they would resume abandoned habits, most, if not indifferent, would err on the side of preferring not to: these are not important things, are not missed and were merely “done out of habit”. Once they are no longer part of our everyday lives, our former habits can seem mystifying or silly. Now that, through lockdown, a range of our habits has been broken, and with our being deprived of the wider social contexts that gave rise to and sustained those habits and so gave them meaning, resuming them does not seem something to look forward to. For many, contemplation of resumption of even the simplest and most harmless of habits is often shadowed by the thought: I’m not really sure I want to do that anymore. Grander and less commonplace ambitions may remain, but the everyday routines of a former life seem tired, less enticing, a relic of a time one has outgrown. One is uncertain then what exactly one wants to do; what kind of “normal” does one hope to return to?
Speak to people of their experiences of the pandemic, with habit and its supporting structures in mind, and the themes will not surprise. It is a familiar complaint that, while ostensibly having more time and opportunity to do so, many people have found it more difficult, and perhaps less rewarding, to read books; many similarly report some loss of interest in the sustaining distractions of sport. This goes for the rescheduled, out-of-season tournaments of 2020 and those begun under restrictions in 2021. It is there, it will be watched; but the customary enthusiasm is lacking. It doesn’t really matter. I have spoken with a few punters who at present cannot imagine wanting to frequent pubs and restaurants in the same ways again.
In one area of activity that importantly structures everyday lives, we can be certain there is no simple going back. The pandemic has irreversibly changed the patterns of how we work. The office is in decline – confirmed already by a glut of major companies divesting themselves of rented city office buildings – and the whole city-centre business ecosystem built around catering to office-based workers will have to adapt in its turn. It is a safe bet that no office-based company not offering flexible and home-based working will retain crucial staff or long remain competitive. The same goes for public sector entities. The option to work from home at least part of the time is now assumed in many professions. And while individuals face some uncertainty as to what the precise arrangements might be when offices again are accessible, collectively the far more disorienting realisation has been that none of this has been necessary for a long time, and the mass move to home-based working ought to have begun in earnest a decade ago. The time, effort and energy, the opportunities for redesign of infrastructure and distribution of services, wasted by an abiding failure of the imagination, seem incalculable.
If one can imagine corporate agency attributable to a society or nation, the temptation to revert to the status quo ante rather than acknowledge that waste must be present. One expects a collective sense of disbelief and dread when we now contemplate the pre-pandemic normality for office workers – the long commuting, even the commuter towns, the days at a desk, the rounds of meetings. What was the point of it all? Why did we voluntarily, collectively, waste so much of our time propping up unnecessary and probably counterproductive arrangements? Why did no one shout stop? And how else, and where else, do we continue to waste our time? (Surely the next absurdity to go must be the five-day, forty-hour work week.) Another suddenly perceived kind of unnecessity has likewise produced real disorientation; the category of “essential workers” inevitably leaves many of those falling outside it, especially in entertainment, the arts and non-essential services, musing on the meaning of their work. Rory O’Neill, who performs as Panti Bliss, captured this succinctly in a recent daytime TV interview when he said: “Everything just ended. It turns out that our industry was utterly disposable.”
The measure of that disposability was of course an industry’s (mandated) closure “overnight” – the suddenness and totality of the shutdown, on the back of a swift decision. Such decisions, rare now from a political establishment which more and more seems inclined to abrogate its main function through varieties of public consultation, are born of necessity. It has been revealing and from one perspective unnerving to note that, when necessity calls them forth and brooks no objection, solutions to pressing social problems are possible. (As criticism of the coalition government’s handling of and communication on the pandemic mounts, sight may be lost of earlier successes, for example how efficiently the coordinating civil service departments implemented the pandemic unemployment payment system.) This, finally, is an aspect of our former normality – temporising on pressing social issues, most prominently housing – which it will be widely hoped has been done away with by the pandemic.
O’Neill casually remarked in the same interview that he was finding it harder to keep up “the wartime spiri”’ that sustained so many in the first months of the pandemic. It’s another phrase we’ve heard regularly evoked, particularly across the water in Britain. The conceit understandably grates for some, but is worth tarrying with to remind that from upheaval comes enduring change, and the more people affected and the longer the duration of sacrifice, the more decisive and lasting the changes. From the last great international war involving conscription there emerged the NHS in England, the GI Bill in the US, the Marshall Plan, and internationally the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the beginnings of what would become the European Union. From the war before that came an entirely new world order, built on the rubble of four empires, as well as male (and arguably, after a delay, female) suffrage. Things changed.
We are not recovering from a war; but we are from another example of what the Irish state euphemistically called the World War II years, “the Emergency”. It has required sacrifice – something seldom undertaken at scale without expectation of reward. A growing expectation is that, as we come out of it, some changes must be in motion; merely going back to normal is unthinkable. If everything is to revert merely to what it was, what will have been the point? – especially now that we have seen that, if it is deemed sufficiently crucial to national wellbeing, critical problems can be addressed and even solved in short order. Change is the more likely for a population at least temporarily dishabituated to, and so accustomed to ask of, its erstwhile pursuits: what is, and was, the point of this? The objects of these questions aren’t necessarily those activities suspended as inessential – arts, sports and entertainments are luxuries, yes; the pandemic didn’t teach us anything in that respect we didn’t already know. Art doesn’t really matter when people are starving, or sport when Shanghai is burning. These aren’t lessons anyone needed to be taught. But to hold in prospect resumption of a raft of dropped habits now and think: I’m not sure I really want to do that anymore, has an alienating, disorienting effect not easily shaken off; “picking up where we left off” will for many people disaccustomed to their former lives feel too much like regression, and will make for interesting times. This, of course, before the nearly thirty-year-old nurses living in their parents’ homes, and the hospital porters and care workers that everyone clapped for, discover they still struggle for mortgage approvals and wonder: what is the point of it all? If the prospect of a return to our former normality does not promise the relief it might have seven or eight months ago, then one might at least be encouraged by the thought that we might topple some of our more hallowed and longstanding follies by asking and demanding answer to the question: What’s the point of this?