It was just the other day that an advertisement in my inbox caught my eye. It was about the colorful ‘stylish’ masks with a caption ‘let’s make it a part of your wardrobe’. Earlier I had been intrigued by the idea, proposed to me by a friend, of having a quintessential pocket for sanitizer in sarees, the traditional Indian wear for women.
COVID-19 will remain part of our lives until its vaccine becomes available. In the view of this uncertainty, different ideas to move on with life are being devised by assimilating the new ways (masks, sanitizer pockets, etc.) with the old ways of living. It is perhaps too soon to ask, ‘how life is going to look like post-COVID-19’ but it is a given that life before and after COVID-19 would not be the same.
Going out of your house for a leisurely walk, to socialize or to work at our own convenience did not figure as something substantial earlier. These current times, however, have made the four walls of our houses visible and tangible. The world has shrunk to the boundaries of our homes. The idea of roaming around freely does not feel ‘normal’ anymore.
This pandemic has forced us to witness life in a very unusual way. Trains and flights that were not even suspended during the two world wars have been ‘kept on hold’ and countries were forced to go into a lockdown. Migrant workers in India were left with no choice but to walk for hundreds of kilometers to their home states. Most of us have started to live our lives assuming that the freshly bought bag of cereal might have recently been touched by an infected person and make sure to sanitize it. ‘Assumptions’, about the virus are part of our lives now and reinforce the precautionary behavior that is slowly becoming a part of our everyday behavioural repertoire. Being a psychologist, the most important aspect that I have observed is people’s yearning for ‘normalcy’, their desire to go back to ‘pre-COVID-19 normal’ times. But is going back possible?
Our ways of existing socially have changed during the crisis. Humans, being highly social tend to belong to groups, but they can no longer ‘physically’ enforce their relationship with the group by gathering together in one place. We can only maintain our social lives ‘from a distance’. The various celebrations have been stalled completely whereas others, including the weddings and funerals, are being live-streamed. More significantly, our relationship with our own selves has undergone a transition. The thought that we could be the carriers of infection, and the associated fear of passing it onto the loved ones, has forced some of us to become ‘hyper-vigilant’ all the time.
It is not only the social aspects of our lives that have undergone a significant change but the impending global economic crisis has the potential to intensify our psychological distress. Even if the world treads its way through the pandemic successfully there are a plethora of other distressing events that may unfold in the coming times. The psychological complexities people have been facing due to the lockdown, the economic crisis and the emotional turmoil of those who have lost their loved ones to the infection are some of the areas that need to be attended to immediately. The emotional health of a large number of bereaved people who have not been able to mourn their loved ones properly because of the restrictions and the inability to show their affection for the deceased through a warm physical touch needs to be given a priority by the state.
As humans, we like to plan but the current circumstances have left us with no control over our lives. The pandemic emerged and caught us unaware and unprepared. The primary intention behind our desire to return to previous times is to feel in control again, to once again, become a part of a time not defined by our absolute helplessness against the ‘novel virus’. This pandemic has opened the worm can of ‘fear of death’ that most of us live denying. Death, as ever, is an uninvited visitor, but recently it has become all too ‘real’ in people’s minds. The fear is making us want to curl up in the safe cocoon that was the time before Covid-19.
We cannot say with certainty when we will be entering post-COVID times, but there are certain questions that we could pose right now in order to try to comprehend whether they will resemble pre-COVID times. The first important question is about the sentiments of people. Though we all bask in the comfort of the memories of the ‘normal’ times, will we be able to become the same people as we were before the viral outbreak? Will this pandemic not leave an indelible mark on people’s lives? Would we be able to shake hands as freely as we used to before? What about large gatherings? How easy would it be for us to go to a wedding or a funeral without once thinking about the possibility of contracting the infection? The thought of a shared physical space is unnerving.
The second pertinent question focuses on the temporal and emotional gaps that the pandemic has created in our lives. The pandemic has created a temporal gap, i.e., the year 2020 seems to be slipping through our hands. Those who were about to be married or who were getting ready to move to another country or to study abroad have been pushed into a dark hole of confusion and uncertainty. Most likely, post-COVID-19 times will be spent resolving these confusions. When we look back at the year 2020 in the future, will these confusions and anxieties still not be remembered as part of the lived experience of this year? Will this feeling of a ‘lack of something’ that engulfs us now not revisit us?
The memory of this time forms the third important question. Will this memory of having witnessed the phase in which more than 300 thousand people died not remain with us forever? Will we be able to erase the memory of being inundated with the reports of an ice rink being converted into a temporary morgue in Spain or of the heaps of dead bodies in a makeshift morgue in New York?
The fourth and the last question is about the gruelling dilemmas that the pandemic has put us through. Whether a 65-year-old or a younger one should get the ventilator. We have been forced to bear witness to heart wrenching moral conflicts. In some circumstances, the value of life has been ascertained based on age and those seen to be of lesser value have been kept bereft of the life-saving equipment and, allowed to slowly die.
It seems as though we might not be able to go back to the pre-COVID-19 normal but we should certainly be able to move into the ‘new normal’ informed by what we have learnt and experienced. Adapting to the future may not be easy but if we are receptive it may not be too hard. Making the masks a part of our wardrobe is, perhaps, a positive step towards welcoming the new normal, accepting it and weaving it into our lives so intricately that it is effortlessly absorbed into our everyday.
Alexander Pope, in his poem An Essay on Man (1733) wrote, “hope springs eternal in the human breast” (Epistle 1) which means that even in the most adverse situations, humans find a reason to be hopeful. Even while we have been trapped within the four walls of our homes, the outside world has come closer through technology. Knowledge is being disseminated across the world through webinars and online lectures. The world has come together to fight these adverse times by working incessantly on the vaccine for the infection. Our healthcare workers and other frontline workers, engaged in essential services, are trying to keep our lives going. The new normal will be a modified version of pre-COVID times with added responsibilities of social distancing and recognition of essential services.
In the Buddhist tradition, a beautiful ‘sand mandala’ is created and destroyed at the end. The destruction of it symbolizes the ephemeral nature of material life and why humans should not cling to it. Like the sand mandala, the previous ‘normal’ should also not be clung to. It is time for us to accept the change and emerge stronger embracing the ‘new normal’ that awaits us.
Khyati Tripathi is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Delhi, India. She was awarded the prestigious Commonwealth split-site PhD scholarship for the academic year 2016-17. She has recently submitted her PhD thesis to the Department of Psychology, University of Delhi. @khyati_tripathi