As we head towards week five of lockdown in the UK, conversation is turning to what we’re all going to do when everything is ‘back to normal’. It’s been the subject of call-ins on the radio, posts on Instagram and threads on Twitter. In lots of ways it’s really comforting, particularly how ordinary the things that people want to do are: hug a friend, eat in a restaurant, walk aimlessly, drink in a pub, sit in the park, go for a swim. Most people aren’t talking about jumping on flights or climbing mountains. The small things are, it turns out, what’s really important to us.
Of course, people are pissed off about missed holidays and cancelled weddings but the things that are really testing people are the tiny details that acted as anchor points for everyday life. Now we’re cut loose from them and we don’t quite know where or who we are without them. In the midst of a global emergency, the fact that people are looking forward to something as small as holding hands is a sweet reminder of the real essentials.
But, as hand-holding and hugging rescind their dangerous reputation and walking without a destination in mind no longer draws the attention of the police, we will, eventually, begin to turn back to the bigger things too. We’ll catch planes, we’ll go on shopping sprees, and we’ll be sufficiently occupied not to be sidelined by the plight of the vulnerable. Those distractions are all part and parcel of normal. So too are noisy, polluting boats slicing through precious underwater habitats and factory workers sewing clothes for pennies. Traffic jams, bone-crushing commutes, hobbies put on hold because there simply isn’t time, rent, mortgages, standardised testing, it’s all normal. And because it’s normal, we’ve accepted so much of it as immutable. But this crisis has revealed that, when pushed, those in power are able to change the things we once considered to be set in stone.
Banks can offer mortgage holidays when we don’t have enough money and landlords, therefore, can offer rent breaks. Many of us can work from home with almost zero fuss. And we can do the same amount of work in less time. We can be assessed on an accumulative body of work instead of our capacity to answer questions and remember facts under pressure at a set date and time. We can receive money from the government with no strings attached. We can, in fact, do things differently.
It’s because of this realisation that I’m hesitant about getting back to normal as quickly as possible. I don’t particularly want to get back to normal as it existed before. Normal upholds archaic power structures and keeps the vulnerable down. It equates worth with productivity. It leaves people without homes when situations beyond their control spiral downward. It allows one person to get paid thousands of pounds to share a photo of their new top while the person who made it faints under the pressure of their workload, unable to afford the sufficient amount of calories to sustain their daily effort. Normal is underfunding the NHS. Normal is demonising immigrants. Normal is making people jump through hoops for barely enough money to survive. Yes, normal is going to the pub and sitting in the park but normal is also unjust, and I’m in no rush to get back to it any time soon.
This isn’t to say that this global pandemic has been a blessing that is allowing us to rethink and reset. It isn’t the cure for pollution and it’s not a situation to take advantage of. People are dying and continue to work in dangerous conditions and to celebrate any of that makes the people doimg so absolute fucking ghouls as far as I’m concerned. Yes, we can appreciate clear waters and dropping levels of air pollution and we can learn from the conditions that fostered them but talking about ‘silver linings’ while people die, on their own, with no family around them isn’t right. How must people feel to see others gloating about sparkling blue canals as the ‘upside to all this’ while they grieve the person they loved most in the world? It’s important that kind of rhetoric stops.
So, this isn’t something to be celebrated. But it can be a turning point. We can take a step back and look at how the rules of play changed when there was simply no other choice, reassess the value structure of society, put the cracks that have been exposed under a microscope, and put our foot down when they begin to tell us ‘no’ again. We can ask for more, because we know they have the power – and money – to provide it. We can support undervalued workers in their endeavours for better compensation instead of shouting them down with examples of others who get paid even less. Even better, we could help those others get paid more too. We can demand that the same support structures for multi-billion pound corporations be put in place for individuals, and ensure that billionaires cannot simply retreat to their yachts and mansions while their workers are left out in the cold. We can work for a world that doesn’t see the poor and the vulnerable, ethnic minorities and underpaid, undervalued workers dying first in a global health crisis, or any other crisis.
We must be careful in our rush to get back to normal because it’s too easy, as we settle back into the little things, to accept the big things exactly the way they were too. Instead of going back to normal, we should redefine what normal is.