Nothing new about ‘new normal’ | Sunday Observer

Nothing new about ‘new normal’

22 November, 2020

“I am perfectly serious when I suggest that one day we’ll have brain surgeons in Ediburgh operating on patients in New Zealand” - Sir Arthur C. Clarke

The use of the term ‘new normal’ has already become normal in our daily conversations due to the lifestyle adjustments we have to make in protecting ourselves from Covid-19.

With no cure in sight everyone from scientists, politicians, media to friends and family have contributed in popularising the term with imaginations of having a new way of life in a new world. What is new or normal for one may be not be new or normal for another.

Wearing a face mask every time one goes out of one’s home may be new to us in Sri Lanka, but there were numerous places in the world where it was normal due to air pollution in those areas. Similarly, maintaining a personal space between each other is the normal practice in certain cultures.

With the advancement of communication technology we have already experienced operations such as, customer service representatives in India answering the phone calls of customers of certain industries based in other countries and/or radiologists in one country reading the X-rays and scans done in another country without any loss of time.

Even more interesting is the concept of working from home (WFH). This has been in existence since the hunter-gatherer time. Setting up specific areas in the home or the land they lived in for their crafts and trade-shops was the normal practice even during medieval times.

‘Work-home’ concept

Some of the architectural designs of living spaces came into being due to the necessity of accommodating this ‘work-home’ concept. Managing the home included managing resources, finances and division of labour. Every member of the family is trained in multitasking since early childhood.

There was no gender gap though there were certain specific tasks males attended to and certain others females attended to through mutual understanding. Children went through their internships, externships and on-the-job training in their early ages and were ready to contribute full-time work by their late teens.

Women and men were equally good in domestic science and home economics. This has been a common practice in Sri Lanka for hundreds of years where not only the carpenters, bakers, seamstresses but also the medical doctors, lawyers and accountants operated from their homes.

Then the industrial revolution(s) pulled the workers out of their homes with concepts such as mass production and expansion of customer bases where the economies began to depend more on consumerism. This has been the practice for a couple of centuries where people work at a place different from the place they live in, commuting daily to and from work.

With the development of communication technology the commuting has become telecommuting allowing the white-collar workers to do their work remotely.

Digital world

Though the blue-collar workers still have to go to the factories and the fields most of those tasks will be automated using Artificial Intelligence (AI) forcing them either to an unprepared retirement or back to school to develop new skills.

At least some parts of these new skills would have to include the basics needed to survive in the fast-changing digital world. Perhaps, the meaning of the term ‘new normal’ therefore is not settling for a normal but accepting that everything is in a state of flux.

Even though the phrase ‘new normal’ tends to imply that we are supposed to assume where we are now as the standard compared to where we were, that assumption would just be an illusion since there won’t be anything that would last long enough to be considered normal.

Catchy phrases such as ‘new normal’ are valuable for politicians and other authorities who are supposed to reinforce confidence in the public indicating that they are in control of the turbulent situation.

Nothing normal

That is why this phrase was seen and heard after crisis situations such as the avian flu in 2005 and the global recession in 2008. If we are experiencing normal conditions then we should be having control over the situation. There is nothing normal about this pandemic. It is not normal for society to be isolated.

It is not normal to see people, who have been controlling and managing their diabetes and/or hypertension for years, die sometimes even without showing any other symptom.

The careful use of such words and phrases coerce us to get used to the situation without trying to think extensively about how and why we are in this situation and the fundamental transformations we would experience in the future.

What are the psychological impacts not only on the families who lost their loved ones and/or who had to experience the horror of getting infected but also those who lost their jobs (and as a result their homes, children’s education and not being able to buy essential medicine for chronic illnesses, or provide care for their aging parents..etc.)? Did we, in Sri Lanka, care about how traumatised our youngsters were when they had to sit national examinations such as Grade five scholarship and the GCE A/L amid the pandemic?

How would the ‘stay-at-home’ orders be observed by a homeless population of over one hundred million around the world?

With the emphasis on online education, telemedicine, WFH and all other digital solutions and virtual engagements we have forgotten the three billion fellow human beings who are offline.

The fact that we are still living in this framework of the survival of the fittest despite achieving all the technological advancements that Sir Arthur C. Clarke envisioned in the 1950s can certainly be a starting point for anyone who would like to explore what is new in the ‘new normal’.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]