RAZINA MUNSHI: So what exactly is this ‘new normal’?
How life will be different once the pandemic has passed is not clear. We can only speculate about power shifts, hope that the ills of society will be addressed more wisely than they are now and trust that we will benefit from some lessons we are learning from our present experiences
It’s a new normal; a reimagined world; a departure from the old way of doing things; the moment for a reset.
We keep hearing that the world will (and must) change after Covid-19. But most of us can’t quite pinpoint exactly how that change will take place.
Will it herald a time of Big Government? And greater spending on public health? Will Covid-19 dismantle the populist regimes that have grown in strength and number all over the world? What about trade, investment and transport?
And what about workers? Will a post-Covid world appreciate, and reward, the workers in the trenches: the hospital catering crew, the cleaners, rubbish collectors, farmers, teachers, retail check-out staff and health-care workers who prop up our lives?
Has Covid-19 shifted – even slightly – power from where it sits and where it operates? Or will we keep handing away our freedoms as state surveillance rises?
If the answers right now seem hazy, at least we can say it’s a subject to which many smart people are applying their minds.
Rethinking the everyday
On the weekend, the SA government outlined the responsibility of companies that will start operating again in some form under level four lockdown. Among the requirements are that employees will have to sit at least 1½ metres away from their neighbours – for months, at the shortest. And if they can work from home, they’ll be asked to continue to do so.
But are these temporary measures, or will the new arrangements lead to the eventual death of the office? This essay in The Economists’ 1843 magazine says other empires have fallen, but “the empire of the office has triumphed over modern professional life” even though its obituary has been read frequently in the technology age.
Office work takes up the best part of many employees’ time. But it is certainly not the most efficient place to work, is harmful to your body because it confines you to a seat, and entrenches social inequalities. The ambient air temperature is set to suit the average white male, and it pretends that children do not exist.
Yet at the same time, many of us are realising that “the pretence of an orderly life at the office”, to quote The Economist, is also liberating, in that it allows us to be a different person there to the one we are at home. And, of course, no amount of Zoom meetings can replace the human need for face-to-face interaction.
We know that the virus will change more than just our immediate environment. Economist Dani Rodrik writes in Prospect Magazine that Covid-19 has shown that the world needs rules for living together – a new take on globalisation. If we can pull it off, the world would have taken some value from this dark chapter.
Global rules should produce benefits for all, not just a few. Rodrik says this means we should prioritise rules that generate large gains. An increase in temporary labour mobility from poor to rich nations – through temporary visa programmes and similar schemes – would generate huge gains. Rodrik also suggests global action against tax havens. But he says the real investment in building new global rules will have to come in noneconomic areas: human rights, climate change and public health.
And what of the more immediate future? When, dare we ask, will you and I get to enjoy a day in the park, or time with friends and family again?
The Atlantic provides a glimpse of an answer by giving some account of the experiences of cities – such as Wuhan – that have relaxed lockdown rules. But for almost everyone, life as they now know it now is far removed from the normal they once knew.
* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM
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