Life after Covid-19: What will our new normal be like?

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  • Saturday, 11 Apr 2020

A secondary school student participating in an online class at home. The digitalisation of education might be accelerated in Malaysia after the appetite for e-learning that is being established during this movement control order period. -- Reuters

It's obvious with even a little reflection that the experience of going through this Covid-19 pandemic would undoubtedly teach us many lessons. Many of us would have realised the importance of self-discipline, inspired by the numerous messages and tips on reconnecting with people, acquiring new skills, exercising and the rest of it. We would have heard it all, ad nauseum.

For many, the experience would have brought out the best in human behaviour and thought – from volunteerism and restraint to tolerance. Most importantly it would have brought out a deep sense of gratitude for being alive and healthy. The immense realisation that we can actually get by with so little and that ostentations add no meaning to life that is characterised by impermanence, could be the biggest lesson of all.

Conversely, for some of us with less philosophical inclinations, the experience also would have brought out the worst in human behaviour – from stocking up excessive supplies knowing that others will be deprived to intentionally passing on fake news to gullible people and watching the mischief take effect. To fight off boredom some would have been on their phones the whole day, perhaps to send messages laced with racial profiling and religious biases.

Profiteering in the sale of health related items while not being pervasive would, nevertherless, have been insidious in relation to high end products and equipment. And Internet scammers got into the act and came up with tricks to deprive retirees of their savings. In times of uncertainty the brain is susceptible to fear resulting in cognitive biases that, under normal circumstances, may be prevented by being more analytical. The unkindest cut of all was snatch thieves in action during the movement control order (MCO) period!

As we marvel at how we managed to pull through the MCO period and days of Covid-19, some behavioural changes may lead to a shift in social norms.

We might be cautious about frequenting crowded or closed in places like cinemas and stadiums or even public transport. Probably the popular Malaysian habit of the weekend stroll around crowded malls with baby in tow might change to families staying home to enjoy quality time together. Social distancing may hopefully condition us to institutionalise the practice of queuing up.

Most certainly, the way we eat with friends will change for fear of contagion. Eating out would soon mean making sure the facility is squeaky clean. Forget visiting that legendary cendol seller who stations his cart, without running water, on top of a monsoon drain.

There is no point in announcing to all that Malaysia has the best food in the world when we continue to tolerate filthy food courts and restaurants with blasé food handlers who display complete disregard for cleanliness and protection. If we are to capitalise on the foreigner’s fascination with our unique repertoire of cuisine, it’s time we emulate our southern neighbour with their stringent standards on cleanliness. Enforcement workers cannot be halfhearted or seen to be in cohorts with restaurant owners.

One major fall out from the Covid-19 experience would be the change in mindset of Malaysians who take great pride in being adventurous foodies. Instead, people might be more inclined to carry packed lunches that are nutritious and they know are clean. Who knows, lunch boxes of yesteryear might become a fad again.

Having had an overdose of fake news during this crisis, even the novice among us will in future be more circumspect in accepting news, particularly those stoking fear and hatred.

Remnants of social distancing might also see less fanfare surrounding politicians who will literally roll up their sleeves and get to work, without the presence of large retinues of well wishers and followers.

The private sector will most certainly reduce air travel for their executives. Suddenly the simple email communication will replace face to face communication and will be seen as being just as effective. The public sector may also follow suit with sophisticated video conferencing and webinars becoming the norm.

Besides the increased popularity of e-commerce, digitalisation of education might be accelerated after the appetite for e-learning that is being established during this MCO period.

The utilisation of drones and robotics in our everyday life might be enhanced and may be a standard feature in community living around the world, in areas such as security surveillance, screening procedures, and even food delivery. In Malaysia, working from home might become a norm in many cases, which may indirectly result in less dependence on foreign domestic help.

The health budget of some countries might see a robust increase as defence spending is cut with a decrease in a preoccupation with imaginary enemies.

In our own country, how healthcare is delivered could change, with some segments opting for e-consultations wherever possible. The public health system too should be more cognisant of the social and physical environment as determinants of health in the case of future outbreaks of communicable diseases.

Healthy public housing systems and working environments as well as the recognition that cultural and religious support networks are essential in galvanising customs and traditions for better health care would be a good public health approach in future.

A focus on the mental health needs of those psychologically affected by the whole Covid-19 experience might lead the government to recognise the need for clear mental health leadership in our country.

While we are still grappling with the challenges of this pandemic, we could also use this opportunity to brace ourselves for these potential changes in our lives, once these trying times are over.

The pain of this pandemic is real, but this too shall pass eventually and we will wake up to a new dawn. As we wait with resilience and optimism, let us ponder the words of our Prime Minister: “After the rain comes the sun.” A new tomorrow is foreseeable.

Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj is a consultant psychiatrist and president of the Malaysian Mental Health Association. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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