As the saying goes, the only constant in life is change.
Never has that felt more true than the past several weeks. One day we’re going to school and work as usual, the next schools are closed. A few days later social distancing measures are in place. And each day since then, those safety measures and restrictions have been tightened or changed as new information is learned about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
Amidst all of these changes, folks are absolutely pining for a return to “normal.” For good reason, too. Tens of millions of people are suddenly out of work with restaurants, bars, salons and other non-essential businesses shuttered. Kids and parents are holed up trying to get some work and learning done in the midst of a crisis. Sports and live entertainment have been canceled until who-knows-when. Gatherings with friends and family (at least the family we don’t live with) are off-limits. And we’re all going more than a little stir-crazy.
We want things the way they were. After all, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, right?
I actually miss sitting at long baseball games. I miss the morning school rush and packing lunches. I miss committee meetings and going to the grocery store. (Okay, maybe I actually don’t miss going to the grocery store, but I’m sure some people do.)
Not surprisingly, we’re starting to hear folks clamoring to “open up the country” again. It’s understandable. The adjustment to this “new normal” of being quarantined at home with our immediate family — trying to work and do school and not lose our shit with each other — is hard, y’all. Gearing up in damn near a hazmat suit to pick up essentials is terrifying. And for those who are out of work or are braving this new terrifying normal because they are health care providers or other essential workers, the struggle is even more real.
But folks, we need to pump the brakes on this obsession with getting back to normal.
Let me be very clear: “normal” as we knew it no longer exists. It’s gone. Shattered. Destroyed. And it’s time to accept that.
Look, I want the end of this crisis as much as anyone. Believe me. But this crisis isn’t going to end when businesses reopen, and that reopening cannot come at the expense of the health and safety of others.
Most public health experts agree that social distancing is working. We do, indeed, appear to be flattening the curve. This is good news. But it does not mean that we should stop what we’re doing. Among other things, we need a sustained reduction in new cases of COVID-19, along with reliable and accessible testing. Those things do not exist at this point. So we need to stay the course. At least for a while longer.
It’s confusing and uncertain and without clear answers. Science Magazine reports that most experts and researchers agree that we’re in it for the long haul (some suggest intermittent social distancing will need to continue until 2022), with plenty of trial and error.
“It’s going to have to be something that we’re going to have to take baby steps with,” says Megan Coffee, an infectious disease researcher at New York University, told Science Magazine.
Nonetheless, Trump and his administration seem hellbent on reopening society as quickly as possible. Will this many people out of work as a result of social distancing, of course, removing those restrictions is a valid goal. It’s true that we were not meant to function like this.
But – and this is a big but – being too anxious to reopen things could backfire. Bigly.
Research shows that ending social distancing too soon could actually result in as many or more deaths than if nothing had been done at all. Our quest to get back to “normal” could make all the sacrifices made to date – the lost lives, the lost jobs, the lost income – for naught. Let that sink in for a minute.
Aside from the health concerns, lifting social distancing restrictions too soon could pummel a bruised economy. It would be like rubbing salt in the gaping wound that is the country right now. According to Vox, the majority of the economists polled by University of Chicago’s Booth School warned that “abandoning severe lockdowns at a time when the likelihood of a resurgence in infections remains high will lead to greater total economic damage” than if the lockdowns were kept in place until the pandemic is under control.
Still, at some point, we’re going to start to emerge from our cocoons. We need to. But even then, we should be in no rush to return to “normal,” because normal was fucked up. As Julio Vincent Gambuto wrote in his wildly popular article Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, “[T]he treadmill you’ve been on for decades just stopped. Bam! And that feeling you have right now is the same as if you’d been thrown off your Peloton bike and onto the ground: What in the holy fuck just happened?”
But what Gambuto also suggests is that the pandemic has created the Great Pause, when we can reevaluate what we want to let back into our lives.
“This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud,” he writes. “We get to Marie Kondo the shit out of it all.”
We need to Marie Kondo the fuck out of “normal” – now and going forward. Because I’ll tell you what, the constant go-go-go’ing of life before all of this wasn’t bringing me joy. Society’s obsession with bigger-better-more wasn’t bringing me joy. Climate change, income inequality, sexism, racism, the fucking patriarchy, the “us vs. them” mentality, rising college tuition costs, standardized testing…none of that was bringing me joy. So the list of things I want to KonMari from my life – from our lives — is long. Normal was full of bullshit, and we’ve been forced to see that now.
Along with the inequities this pandemic is shining a light on, it has also given us the gift of a clean slate of sorts. We can choose what we let back in to our calendars and our lives. Things like time with good friends – the ones who have reached out and checked in over the past few weeks – not those fake, lukewarm friendships that are built on “we should get togethers” that never happen.
More money for nurses and teachers. Fewer cars and airplanes. A government that is filled with knowledgeable experts, guided by a compassionate leader, instead of blow-hards and zealots.
Long walks. Time to watch the sunset. Baking bread and knitting blankets. Time with family to just play a game or watch a movie. Traveling. These are the things I want to let back in.
So no, I don’t want to return to “normal” – not now, not in two weeks, and maybe not ever.
Does that mean I want to perpetually linger in lockdown forever? Absolutely not.
I appreciate that life inherently involves risk and we will need to make informed assessments about when it is safe to start stretching our legs, so to speak. At some point, based on the advice of knowledgeable experts (hello, Dr. Fauci), we’ll realize that the risks are manageable, and we’ll slowly open the country and our lives back up.
But even as we do that, let’s fight the urge to get back to normal. Because once the clutter of our daily lives is wiped clean, it’s easier to see that “normal” wasn’t working anyway.