For most of us, there is no going back to the pre-pandemic normal. Confronted with the finality of this statement, your instinctive reaction is likely to be: “We will miss those days!” Yet, in the very next moment, you may also realize that you don’t miss everything about ‘those days’ as there were things you wished would change. In spite of all the pain and the suffering, the Coronavirus pandemic is an excellent opportunity to create a new normal that is much better than the old one.
As a society we will have to deal with the most demanding challenges of the hour: of containing the spread of the virus; of having to protect millions of people whose livelihoods are on the line; and of reviving an economy that has taken a historic blow. We have no choice but to confront these challenges, but we also have an unprecedented opportunity in shaping the neighborhood, city, country, and the world we live in.
STATUS QUO CAN BE ALTERED, VERY EASILY!
Most of India’s problems are very hard to solve because they are log-jammed. The status quo is often a sub-optimal equilibrium, but an equilibrium nevertheless. Even if we try to change things, they return back to previous normal, in no time. Here’s an example that might appear familiar to you. The traffic junction is congested because of several interconnected reasons: there are too many vehicles, the road alignment is bad, the bus informally stops at the street corner blocking traffic, the auto-rickshaw stand is at a point that prevents vehicles from easily making a turn, pedestrians walk on the street because the footpath is blocked by vendors and so on. In that pre-pandemic normal, everyone knew that there was a problem, but were more interested in merely keeping the traffic moving. Some minor repairs here, some police ‘enforcement’ there, used to be all that could be done. Though most of the people were unhappy with the state of affairs, it was rational for all of them to do nothing about it.
The Coronavirus pandemic has thrown this status quo up in the air. The lock-down offers a window of several weeks wherein urban infrastructure can be put in the right place because there is little traffic on the streets. Junctions can be realigned. Bus stops and routes can be changed to make public transport more accessible. Motorists can be better regulated and habituated to follow traffic rules. The whole area can be cleaned up and new norms can be evolved against spitting and public urination. By no means a silver bullet, the pandemic and the resultant lock-down relaxed some of the acute constraints that previously made such reforms next to impossible.
LESSONS FROM THE LOCK-DOWN
The traffic problem is just one example. The point is that we can move to a new, better social equilibrium. In four weeks of lock-down, we have realized that they can effectively work from home. Schools and colleges have found that they can easily move many classes online without affecting learning outcomes. Similarly, a good number of meetings and events can easily take place over the internet. Even some medical consultations can be carried out remotely, via telemedicine.
Clear skies and ‘now drinkable’ waters of Ganga ad Yamuna made us realize how much we were hurting mother nature, and that mitigating the damage is something “doable”. Now, we are able to appreciate the work of healthcare workers, security personnel, and most importantly farmers, the real superheroes (apart from teachers) behind every successful society.
ADAPTION IS KEY
It’s for sure that this transition will not be pleasant and painless. In many sectors, entrepreneurs and established giants are fighting for survival, alike. Many fear that the pandemic has fatally damaged their business models and they might have to start from scratch. People are getting mentally prepared to start all over again, but the question is “why do the same thing?” That is a profound question. Not everyone will be able to adapt easily, but thinking about how we might adapt, do things differently, and do entirely different things is the way forward. We might find that we had unknowingly trapped ourselves into our own sub-optimal equilibria.
“It’s more efficient to move signals than move mass”. Indeed, we have discovered that we might have been moving around more a bit too much. Whenever the lock-down ends, employers and institutions should not automatically move everything back offline. Because, lesser commute means lesser traffic, cleaner air and hence, a greener planet.
Staggered working hours, reduction of waste, e-commerce, contact less delivery, attention to public hygiene and direct charity to help needy people in our local communities are all good habits that can positively transform the way we live. We will have to make a conscious attempt to retain them in the post-pandemic world.
Some things will change in the post-pandemic world: supply chains, travel norms, concern for hygiene, internet use, consumption patterns and so on. But many other things will remain the same: family, food, drinks, shelter, education, transport, spirituality, personal vanity, the desire for status and recognition. There will be better equilibrium points at the intersection of this change. We will have to find them. The post-pandemic normal can be much better than the pre-pandemic one, if and only if “we make it so”.