Often I hear the media or my friends refer to “when things go back to normal.”
Having Joe Biden inaugurated as President of the United States on Jan. 20th makes it seem more possible—a return to “normalcy.” Every day the deaths from the pandemic continue to tick upwards on the news — as the numbers inch inexorably beyond 400,000 in the US, I suspect I am not the only one numbed and depressed - unable to take in the enormity of the numbers flashing on the screen - number dead, number sickened, number hospitalized…and behind every number, a human being, a worker, teacher or artist, someone who died alone because their families and friends could not sit by their bedside in that loneliest of vigils.
We must chart a post-pandemic future that is not a return to normalcy, but an opportunity to create anewCan we be blamed if we daydream about a post-COVID future, a return to normalcy?
But what does normalcy mean? My guess is that for many people - normalcy includes visits with family and friends, hugs and kisses for those we love, going out for a meal with friends, seeing a movie in a theatre.
But even pre-COVID, normalcy meant different things to different people. For the more than half a million people without a home (as of January 2019: “State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition”, National Alliance to End Homelessness), normalcy pre-COVID meant living on the streets without a roof over their heads and without enough to eat. For the more than 400,000 young people in the foster care system (as of 2018, “The State of America’s Children 2020” pg. 60, The Children’s Defense Fund), normalcy meant living with people they did not call Mom and Dad. For people of color, normalcy includes walking in fear—of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person.
The yearning for physical human contact and connection is a universal longing. Still, the talk about returning to normalcy amongst people with resources often implies, in addition: being able to eat out, attend movies and concerts, and return to carefree travel and vacation. These are not universal norms but rather the luxuries of the middle class and the wealthy.
One thing this pandemic has gifted us is how it has opened our eyes to how precarious life is and always has been. Life is precarious, and also precarious are the conditions the poor, the sick, and those unvalued by society have grappled with. We now appreciate and acknowledge essential workers. But before the pandemic, how many of us thought about farmworkers' conditions or meatpacking plant employees? Not to mention the myriad of other workers who don’t receive livable wages…
This pandemic did not make essential workers essential - they were essential before. Still, we chose to ignore their importance, in most instances paying them poorly and treating them with little respect (supermarket employees, farmworkers, health care people, trash removal workers-this is far from a comprehensive list) and/or taking them for granted (doctors, teachers, the post office, all those who take care of those we have lost). The exploitative treatment of low-wage workers, disproportionately represented by people of color, has contributed to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and brown people. 34% of all deaths related to Covid19 are Black Americans (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Returning to “normal” is not looking so feasible anymore, nor does it look desirable. Do we want to return to a world where some of us enjoyed the fruits of all of our labors and so many others struggled just to put meals on the table for their families? A world where some turn to the police for safety while others fear for their lives? A world where some of us jump on flights or into our cars to take carefree trips without considering what we are doing to the planet and hence to our own present and future?
If we had enough money, a family, and the kind of job where we could work at home, we have spent most of the past year spending more time with our families than ever before, more time in nature, more time taking care of ourselves and our loved ones and we got to shelter in place at home. If we didn’t, we worked harder than we had ever worked before in unsustainable, terrifying, heartbreaking, and dangerous conditions.
We must chart a post-pandemic future that is not a return to normalcy, but an opportunity to create anew, a world where all people are treated with love and respect, respect reflected in fair wages for honorable work, and all work is understood to be honorable. Where we value all workers all the time, not just during bleak pandemic times when we have to face how much we have taken for granted the people who kept our worlds and our lives running.
Can those of us who had the luxury to stay at home take what we learned about staying home, working from home, and learn to lead sustainable lives where travel is much more judiciously and rarely planned and all that running, walking, and biking can be applied towards commuting, not just exercise? Can we “dare to create something new,” as Pope Francis stated in his editorial “A Crisis Reveals What is in Our Hearts” (November 26, 2020). The Pope issues a clarion call: “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.”
Let us rise to his call and dare to dream big, to imagine and create a world where each person is valued and respected, where work is adequately and fairly compensated, and each person has their basic human needs (food, shelter, safety, health care, fulfilling work, love, and respect) met generously, yet in a responsibly sustainable manner that will meet and solve the urgent challenges of the climate crisis.
We have united across the world before to face existential and terrifying crises victoriously - the human race is at a pivotal moment to prove that we can do it yet again. Will we be able to rise and be victorious? I think we can. We must.