Should we talk instead about reinventing the normal?
Today, I was talking to a friend who is at the apex of a long and successful globe-trotting professional career. Reflecting on what he has learned during the lockdown, he said: “One thing I am sure of is that I am not going back to the life I had before.” When I probed and asked what he meant, he said that he would cut down on travel and do remotely as much of his work as possible. What he did not mean was that he was reconsidering his career and life choices in a broader sense: Does the purpose of what he does continue to make sense? Does the social and economic construct in which he does it merit a second look?
On October 8, 2005, a severe upthrust of the Himalayas triggered a massive earthquake (7.6 on the Richter scale) in the Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir. With its aftershocks, it left in its wake unimaginable devastation and close to 90,000 fatalities. In Nepal, on April 25, 2016, an earthquake measured at 7.8 on the Richter scale rocked most of the country, triggering a giant avalanche on Mount Everest that buried 21 people and another in the Langtang valley that wiped out 250 people. Nepal as a whole mourned close to 9000 victims. What might we learn from such massive earthquakes and their aftershocks in mountainous terrain about the Covid-19 pandemic – an analogous disaster on a planetary scale – and our response to it?
Let me first consider the issues raised by the conversation with my friend in that light.
Imagine yourself living in a remote mountain village when the earthquake strikes. As the first tremors rumble, you are caught off-guard, just like every other villager. You seek immediate refuge as best you can. When the first shock recedes, you come out and survey the devastation. Perhaps the river has flooded. An avalanche has buried the northern part of the settlement. On the southern aspect, mud is sliding down a steep slope and menacing another neighborhood. Other villagers have come out of shelter and are looking around too. You suspect that there are casualties and people in need of immediate help. You rally with others to rescue as many as you can as fast as you can. You know that there might be aftershocks, so you are in a hurry to put yourself out of harm’s way. In the prevailing Covid world, we have witnessed such aftershocks in the form of economic depression, massive job losses, bankruptcies, and protests for racial equity. More are undoubtedly to come.
In one scenario, you bet on your health, your knowledge, your connections, and your means to flee the area. You strike out on your own, at the risk of finding yourself exposed to the random aftershock. You gamble that you are likely to make it and to resume the kind of life you had, only in another town down in the valley that your connections have told you has been spared. This first scenario in the earthquake metaphor highlights the essence of the perspective put forth by my friend. He is talking about toughing it out for a while until he can resume the kind of life he had before the pandemic. In many conversations, I get the same kind of orientation: the future people describe often looks like an obstacle course version of the past. In complexity terms, it mirrors the confused belief that we can hop straight out of chaos and back into the comfort of the predictable domain.
In a second scenario, you cooperate with all willing villagers to identify and assemble in a safe spot from which you can monitor the situation. You scan for any sign that will give you a clue – for example, you keep an eye on cattle and other animals because folk wisdom tells you that they sense the onset of an earthquake well before it hits; you reach out to the elders in the village who might have experience that will be invaluable in detecting patterns; you gather all resources that are available to sustain you and other survivors until help reaches the village. In short, you realize that you are going to have to make a life in precarious post-disaster conditions for a while, and so will your fellow villagers. Together, you are better able to dodge the impact of the inevitable aftershocks, to protect lives, to attend to the most vulnerable, to strengthen the bonds of the community and to create the right conditions for collective resilience. In complexity terms, this approach is consistent with the idea that once our simple lives are thrown into chaos the first order of business is a rush to safety, but what we need next is not to hurry back to the comfort of the predictable world that just crumbled upon our heads, but instead to look for patterns that allow us to bootstrap our way out of chaos and into the complex domain (unpredictable but patterned) and dwell there for a while. This is as true at the level of the individual (my friend) as it is of nations (e.g. the premature US re-opening).
To me the first phase of any ‘new normal’ will likely look like that second scenario – an encampment that we will inhabit for a while and a bridge to a second phase. The Covid world equivalent might involve a sustained period featuring social distancing, mask wearing, monitoring infection rates, semi-closed borders, and staggered-shift manufacturing.
Back in the village, you have withstood the mudslide and the aftershocks, and you have survived on the meager resources you had. The immediate crisis is behind. The village assembles to talk about the future. Shall you rebuild the village as is, perhaps agreeing on a new and explicit disaster response process, but otherwise ignoring the structural fragility of your set up and settling back in your old lives, minus the casualties? Shall you rebuild but upgrade, for example embedding anti-seismic construction technology? Or shall you relocate to a place that is less exposed to natural risks, maybe out of the pathways of avalanches and mudslides? As you debate these questions, you leverage all that you have learned, you honor the wisdom of the elders, and you tap into whatever expertise you can have access to. Once a decision is made and the plan brought to life, you are experiencing the second phase of the village’s post-earthquake life.
We are now going through this first phase of our response to the pandemic, laying a bridge into the next phase and talking about our future. We face an analogous set of options with analogous implications playing out at the individual and collective levels:
- Ignoring our structural fragility and settling back in our old lives? It seems to me that this is what most of the ‘new normal’ talk is about – necessary but not sufficient. For example:
- At the individual level, adjusting our behavior to avoid the most blatant risks associated with Covid-19 contamination but otherwise going back to our old lives.
- At the collective level, mandating the wearing of masks in public and increasing the capacity of hospitals to handle critical Covid-19 cases.
- Rebuilding and upgrading? We might call the real-world equivalent of this option ‘upgraded normal’. For example:
- At the individual level, investing in our health through sleep, diet, and exercise.
- At the collective level, making remote work the default option and outdoors restaurant dining the norm.
- Relocating to a new and safer site? Let’s call this option ‘reinvented normal’ in the post-Covid context. For example:
- At the individual level, changing the purpose and the course of our lives to help society build a more sustainable future.
- At the collective level, reinventing our institutions and our infrastructure in ways that foster the common good, community and resilience at the expense of efficiency and economic value.
I do not know what you think, but I am a fervent advocate of reinventing what we define as normal. I believe that we have built a world where natural catastrophes from pandemics to climate change driven freak events are bound to get more frequent and more lethal. Papering over the challenges that we face (as implied by the current understanding of ‘new normal’) is daring the devil. Merely upgrading what we have to deal with the last pandemic will leave us totally exposed to the next natural disaster – we are not playing rounds of the same game against mother nature; we are subject to whatever she decides the next game will be.
I find our current predicament frightening. At the same time, I draw inspiration and hope from the idea that we can rally together to re-norm the world. A reinvented normal might require more time and much more collaboration to become reality, but it looks to me so much more compelling than the incremental version that I hear and read about most often.
Note: I have thankfully no personal experience of a large-scale earthquake. I want to apologize upfront for the clumsy and perhaps erroneous account of what it feels like to be involved in one, not to mention to have lost loved ones to one.