What a ‘New Normal’ should mean for us

No masking it: A ‘New Normal’ is not only making social distancing practices part of our daily life but also forcing us to reinvent ourselves as a human species. — AP

One positive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is that we will proudly call ourselves as the Malaysian race with diverse cultures and religions.

I remember watching a short video clip in early January which had a panel of astrologers on a TV show. They were asked by the host to predict what was in store for the people in 2020. All four panellists were so generously optimistic, saying all will be hunky-dory.

Great year for businesses, they said, while personal and professional lives will be smooth with some minor hiccups. But they assured the viewers that disruption to their lives would be minimal with no adverse effects. I am not sure if they know what hit them now, or how Covid-19 has affected the lives of these people.

Even the world’s renowned futurists did not see this coming. If you read through what they told us to expect in the next five to 10 years, they may have been right on some counts but surely they had no inkling whatsoever of this devastating black swan event which has changed the face of the world.

In the past, I used to hear politicians and economic experts talking of game changers and change agents without knowing what they actually were. Finally, we see the novel coronavirus as the real game changer, forcing everyone to get ready for a “New Normal”, the two words that are being bandied about freely with no one knowing what these words actually mean.

To many, I am afraid, this seems to be limited to wearing masks all the time, sanitising our hands often, keeping a safe distance, and no handshakes, hugs or kissing of hands. And wining and dining in big groups will have to shelved at least until a vaccine is found.

But there is so much more beyond these. We often hear political and corporate leaders saying that we have to reinvent ourselves to face the New Normal if we want to stay relevant post-Covid-19. The question now is, how are we going to reinvent ourselves as a human species? After having led a life of the old normal, the changes have to be dramatic. Will we, or can we?

From what I see, our politicians have neither changed nor reinvented themselves in the wake of Covid-19, despite knowing the majority of Malaysians are in dire straits. Life seems to be same old, same old for them. Maybe because they are just too comfortable, not being able to empathise with the workers who lost their jobs overnight.

Does this New Normal mean re-inventing ourselves merely in our social practices? Does it also mean we have to relook at the way we spend and plan our future budgets? Has the pandemic made us realise how wrong we were in not only carrying so much anger and hatred against others but also keeping it with us for a long time? What about the way we treat our neighbours and fellow Malaysians from the different races, religion and caste?

Has the impact of Covid-19 been so enlightening that they will eventually throw racism and religious bigotry out of the window? Oh yes, will corruption be a thing of the past? Will the authorities and the rich businessmen finally work towards the “Shared Prosperity” policy to narrow the existing wide gap between the rich and poor? Wasn’t this income disparity glaring during the movement control order (MCO)? In short, can we create a Malaysian Utopia or anything near to that?

We have a situation where there are just too many questions with few answers. Maybe it is a little too early to see how things are going to pan out but we can draw some conclusions based on what we can see on the ground at the moment. There’s a spectrum of possible post-coronavirus futures, no black and white situation. Just like what everyone says about how we are fighting an invisible enemy, the New Normal also depends on several unknowns.

Someone asked if the impact of Covid-19, which resulted in nearly two months of the MCO, and the hard work by frontliners from all races and creed could help Malaysians exorcise racism and religious bigotry that seems to be so deeply entrenched in some of us. He was optimistic, basing it on how volunteers and donors from all races rallied to help those who needed basic food items. Will this realisation be also be part of the New Normal in our country?

As much as many of us want to see this, our hopes will be quickly dashed when we read the political and social discussions on the social media. And of course when we see politicians blatantly dabbling in arguments about racial and religious supremacy. And this is happening right in the middle of the extreme hardship and uncertainty many are facing, not knowing it is going to last.

Take the example of the young policeman who was killed after a car that was driven by a drunk driver crashed into him at a roadblock put up to check on MCO violators. Using this unfortunate and sad incident, every Indian is branded a keling mabuk (drunk Indian) although there are so many teetotallers out there. Instead of stereotyping and social branding, it would have been better if the commentators had called for tougher sentences, including a possible death penalty or life imprisonment for causing death by drink driving.

There are so many Indian Malaysians who are mad with the driver for taking away a young life, with some saying they should be put away for life to deter Malaysians from driving under the influence of alcohol. Yes, everyone agrees that tougher measures are needed to deter such irresponsible actions.

Some activists might say this is too harsh and that it violates human rights. Tell this to the families of such victims. Remember they too have their right to feel and be safe in public. If someone knowingly violates the MCO to drink and drive, it goes to show that existing laws are just not enough. Cocvid-19 has obviously not taught this guy anything.

If Malaysians behave in this manner during the height of such a major pandemic, I am inclined to be less sanguine about any Covid-19 lesson changing mindsets and removing the deep-seated hatred and prejudices that we have lived all our lives.

The professional New Normal may see a drastic change as many employers are actually thinking of having staff to work more from home to cut operational costs, among others. You see, Covid-19 arrived at a time when we were already trending towards working and shopping from home, watching movies on Netflix and other networks with the extensive use of the smartphone for social media.

With the MCO, we personally experienced how the coronavirus could accelerate these trends, something psychologists worry could lead to more recluses with more Malaysians preferring to stay at home to protect themselves from germs and viruses in future. This fear could make people wearier and anxious when using the public food outlets, public transport or flying. This episode in our lives is a massive real life experiment to find out if we can do without physical proximity.

If this is going to be the New Normal, it is indeed scary as human beings are known to be social animals – becoming sick or developing illnesses when they do not interact enough. If we cannot hug, shake hands or sit down and eat together or party, the very essence of humanity will be lost.

What we have experienced is a crisis that is very different. No crisis management books or training have addressed the sudden turn this world has taken. The lifting of MCO here and lockdowns in other parts of the world does not mean we will have a true recovery but simply that we are shifting into the New Normal gear.

We will know if we have morphed into better human beings or if it is only a temporary phase until the MCO ends for good. If we all go back to our old ways, calling names and running down the race and religion of each other once the infection rate reaches a manageable level, we are back to the old normal that will drag the nation down.

But it is the rakyat who will have to finally decide on how we want to live, not the politicians or experts. We should not accept the New Normal dished out to us by some clueless politicians. It is not a given and needs to be publicly discussed and debated.

In this context, like many others who call themselves Malaysians first, I hope that the positive impact of Covid-19 will see our differences eventually fading so that we will proudly call ourselves as the Malaysian race with diverse cultures and religions.

This is the New Normal that I wish to envisage for a post Covid-19 Malaysia.

K. Parkaran was a deputy editor at The Star and producer at Aljazeera TV. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star.

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