Comment: The new (ab)normal


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  • Sunday, 31 May 2020

Reality bites: To tackle a more substantive agenda for a truly new normal, congested slums that have become fast lanes for Covid-19 in Manila must be addressed. — Filepic/AFP

THE term “new normal” is being tossed around a lot these days, a kind of vague reference to what we might expect with life after Covid-19 lockdowns and movement control orders.

It turns out, though, that the term is not new at all; in fact, it is more than 100 years old and has been used in different contexts.

There’s a great site that I just discovered while researching on this “new normal” phrase: English.stackexchange.com.

It seems “new normal” has been in use for more than a century with its first major use right after World War I to describe some of the postwar transitions.The term seemed to have fallen into disuse, but in the late 1990s, psychologists resurrected the term in relation to grief management, ie helping people to cope with the death of a loved one, and to move on into a “new normal”.

After the horror of 9/11 – the airplane terror attacks in the United States on Sept 11,2001 that killed thousands – “new normal” became a popular term to refer to both individual as well as collective coping. One of the first books to use “new normal” in the title referred to efforts to counsel firefighters who rushed to the sites of the carnage in New York City and the Pentagon to rescue people. Later, the term was used to refer to an entire nation moving from grief to recovery.

Reading that history of “new normal” did jog my memory about articles that came out for several years after 9/11, mainly in relation to the increasingly intensive security measures that came up against terrorist attacks. Older readers know these changes only too well, especially in relation to airport security and how flying has become more and more complex and tedious, all part of a new normal.

Then came Covid-19, and we saw how an outbreak became an epidemic, then a pandemic, distant thunder getting closer and closer until we realised the world was now at war with another kind of terrorist: tiny and invisible yet able to infect people rapidly, sabotaging the victims’ own cells to reproduce and to cause illness and death.

Covid-19 has embedded itself in our lives, in society and culture, and when we use “new normal”, it means we will never be the same again. The idea of culture as lifeways could not be more true today as the virus reshapes the ways we think and feel, and the way we do things. The changes are so pervasive, reshaping, for example, birthday celebrations. Even language has changed: physical distancing, social distancing, Zoom and Zoom fatigue, minimonies.

Minimonies? That’s a wedding ceremony with only a few guests, and with physical distancing.

The new normal will not be a complete break with the past. Old habits die hard as well as new bad habits acquired during the quarantine. People seem to move more slowly now, and are letting go of routines like personal grooming. The more privileged ones who still have their guaranteed incomes (as with many government employees) can be tempted to go into slouch mode: sleeping in much later, watching more streaming videos, ordering out much more instead of cooking.

That’s where I share the worry of the Philippines’ Department of Health about a “new abnormal” coming in, one tied to privilege and entitlement. I see (and smell) traffic returning to the area where I live, and I see the many photos of people rushing to the malls and not observing physical distancing. We run the risk of a resurgence of infections, and stricter lockdowns.

I thought of another angle to a new abnormal when new University of the Philippines Diliman chancellor Fidel Nemenzo told me some faculty had strong reservations about the term new normal, coming from “new” -- “bago” in Filipino -- having been so overused during the Marcos dictatorship, from Bagong Lipunan (new society) to relocation areas like Bagong Silang and Bagong Pagasa that turned into slums.

The concern then is that a new normal might mean we’re merely window-dressing our old problems; or, to borrow medical jargon, neglecting preexisting conditions that have made Covid-19 so deadly and debilitating: the lack of job security, unemployment insurance, and social safety nets; the neglect of the healthcare system; the poorly supported science research institutions; the sidelining of health and science subjects in education; political patronage and corruption; congested slums that have become fast lanes for the virus; even environmental destruction.

Keep the masks on and the physical distancing, but let’s begin to tackle a more substantive agenda for a truly new normal. -- Philippine Daily Inquirer

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