What the Return to Normalcy Will Look Like

Are you growing weary of admonitions from the chattering class that we'll "never go back to normal" after the Coronavirus Shutdown-Shakedown, because these seismic changes will create a "new normal" that will displace what was once regarded as normal?

For the most part, these prognostications focus on technologies that redefine how we work, socialize, and learn.  But such technologies and their socio-economic ramifications have been around for years.  Noteworthy is that our response to the COVID-19 outbreak prompted millions to ramp up our use of technological infrastructures, most of which were already in place, as we transitioned from working in the office to home, learning in school versus virtually, and food shopping online.  Millions deployed these technologies on a larger scale, at an earlier time, and simultaneously than would have occurred sans coronavirus.

Companies caught off guard were either woefully sheltered or lacking a pulse, but they now understand the value in having a plan.  Amazon was more prepared for an online surge and had the technology and supply chain in place to accommodate it relative to most local grocery stores, but it still couldn't meet customer demand.  Companies with telecommuting capacities in place had fewer problems adjusting to the demands of the outbreak than those building this capacity from scratch.  It hasn't been a seamless transition for all, but some experiences were noticeably smoother than others.

We are more prepared to use these tools and make these transitions than three months ago — hence all the jibber-jabber that there is no going back.  But is this, as suggested, a paradigm shift on an existential scale?  Are the days of brick-and-mortar shopping, classroom learning, and going to work behavioral relics of the past — like carrying water back from its source versus pumping it into your home?   Not yet.  In the near term, these technologies won't completely alter the shopping, work, and education habits of Boomers, but they will remain options in their lifestyle toolbox.  As Boomers perish and Zoomers come of age, reliance on technology will undoubtedly intensify.

Such epic technological change might be further delayed by another unintended consequence from the quarantine: a renewed, almost gleeful, appreciation for going to work or school and interacting with other human beings, no matter how annoying, despicable, or competitive they may be. 

This crisis may have heightened our awareness of the camaraderie we take for granted and the importance it plays in our daily routines.  As long as this experience is fresh in our minds, we might hesitate utilizing technology that vitiates our need to physically connect with others who worship the same, share similar values, hobbies, interests, or politics, etc.  We might despise that morning commute, but if the alternative is confinement to our homes, the freedom to go for a spin in our car (even to work) may take on renewed meaning.  That job we hated suddenly looks different when we truly appreciate the income, the 401(k) benefits, and health insurance it provides.  School, even with the cliques and playground antics, is better than the monotony of staying home all day, every day.

People just might go to work inspired, eager, accommodating, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  But it won't take long before we are lulled back into damning the workplace, hating school, and being annoyed by our cohorts and friends.  Like the "unforgettable" pains of labor we end up forgetting, the COVID mêlée of 2020 will soon be a distant memory.  It's human nature.  The nation was in shock and united after 9-11, but it didn't take long for partisan politics and accusations of lies about WMD and the Bush administration's culture of corruption, to resurface.  We curse the heat and humidity of summer while yearning for cooler weather, but as soon as winter cold strikes, we complain and long for summer.  We can't wait to become adults, then we grouse about aging and the responsibilities of adulthood as soon as they are thrust upon us.  Dissatisfaction and whining are as much a part of our nature as devising ways to overcome our dissatisfactions and correct what makes us whine.

For transhumanists and technophiles, this all hastens the inevitability of a "technological singularity" that will catapult us into a utopian post-human existence.  But I suspect that this brush with isolation will cause many to cling, just a little longer, to our humanity before yielding to technology and willingly transforming into technologically-enhanced cyber-beings.  Even better, my hope is that it forces a national conversation on what it means to be human and the role technology should or shouldn't play in our lives — a conversation that is sorely lacking among us, the stakeholders.

So, yes, there will be changes — most of which were already underway — but here are some things I will not incorporate permanently into my life once this has passed.  The elbow-greet will never replace hugs or handshakes.  I will not walk 6–10 feet around people on my daily stroll, while shopping, or during my commute.  I promise with all of my heart and soul, I will never, ever disinfect every item from the grocery store or every piece of mail that arrives at my door.  I will go to movie theaters, walk in the park, stand next to people — even strangers.  I will frequent restaurants and travel to see my kin or for pleasure in germ-laden planes, trains, and automobiles.  I will not fear opening my mailbox or hauling my garbage cans.  It is my fervent hope that, should I sneeze in public, people will not scatter like cockroaches.

I refuse to navigate everything from the maniacally clean comfort of my home because that is not a life worth living.

I will do what has always made sense like not touching anything in a public restroom and using hand sanitizer after every visit; same in the gym, with shopping carts, after diapering babies or caring for elderly parents.  That is common sense.  But the OCD hand-washing and disinfecting that Drs. Birx and Fauci dream we'll permanently embrace are neither sustainable nor, do I believe, advisable.

As kids, we played in the dirt, and no one bagged their dog droppings.  Who knows what we were exposed to?   We would return home filthy.  We touched our faces; put our fingers in our ears and mouths; and, I would say, were more healthy and immunologically stronger than our counterparts of today.  The body was designed to encounter these microbes — some good, some bad, some viral, some fungal, some bacterial — in small, consistent doses in order to mount immunological responses that would make us healthier in the long run.     

In a similar vein and on a grander scale, exposure to the WuFlu helps us develop herd immunity.  Until we develop a cure or vaccine, that herd immunity will protect the majority of us in the long run from repeated encounters with the virus.  We may be close to a vaccine, but close is not enough — we still don't have one for Ebola, Lyme, Zika, West Nile, etc.  If this virus is apt to recur and a vaccine is still wanting, we will need that immunity.  Some experts suspect that COVID-19 has been with us longer than suggested, giving people time to develop immunity and perhaps explaining the curiously low infection rate in California.  If we shelter in place every time the virus threatens, we will never fully develop that protection.

I'm not saying the Shutdown-Shakedown was unnecessary.  Obedient, caring, and worried Americans listened to leaders and experts about flattening infections and deaths and minimizing the toll on our health care system, which, if overtaxed, could spur socio-political and economic bedlam.  We willingly made the required personal and professional sacrifices.  But mitigation efforts to slow the spread — including closing down the economy — are supposed to be temporary, not long-term.  We are now at an inflection point, where we must balance the costs to society of the virus and closing down our economy.  I am confident that a majority of us would prefer to take our chances with COVID-19 to the near certainty of losing our homes, savings, health insurance, independence, liberties, and integrity.  We were not designed to self-quarantine and be unproductive indefinitely, to be permanently OCD and anti-social — even if it wards off a potentially deadly virus.  It is in our nature, however, to find a middle ground of prudent measures to slow the spread, while going back...to normal.

Image: Thijs Paanakker via Flickr.

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