Thoughts From Six Feet Away: The "New Normal"
Now that we’re entering the 25th month of a global pandemic (some days it feels longer, other days it feels like yesterday), the most common thing I hear from people is that they “can’t wait for things to get back to normal,” A worthy sentiment, to be sure, but I can’t help but to ask one simple question:
Will “normal” ever happen again?
The question sounds simple on the surface, but on further inspection, the definition of “normal” has many layers. I guess it depends on how one defines normal. If one defines normal by how the world looked before the World Health Organization declared the pandemic in January of 2020, then most are in for a rude awakening. In my opinion, the world that existed prior to December 2019 will never return. Oh sure, there will be aspects of pre-pandemic society that will return, but some things are irrevocably broken. I see too many disturbing things as I navigate the world for me to view it through any other lens than the one of a combination of guarded optimism and grim realism.
That’s not to say there haven’t been positives to come out of this. Video conferencing and virtual communication reached new highs. As a physician, I can reach patients through this medium that I may not have been able to serve before. The school “snow day” couldn’t possibly survive, knowing that we did e-learning for nearly an entire school year in 2020-2021. Ideal? No. Possible? Yes. We’ve also answered the decades-old question that yes, it can be accomplished in an email, rather than another tedious meeting.
But there are some concerning things, too. I got a chance to walk downtown Indianapolis recently, and I was flabbergasted by the change to the vibe. Walking through Circle Center Mall was like wandering through a post-apocalyptic world, with few people walking the halls and two-thirds of the store front space empty. The store fronts in downtown were similarly empty. Granted, it was a Sunday, which isn’t exactly the point in the week where the city is bustling with activity, but I expected more activity in the state’s largest city.
Seeing all this brought a few things to bear. The downtown area was ravaged by riots and protests in 2020, and it’s clear that the empty store fronts reflect some unease about future tensions. As far as the empty mall, the pandemic also brought one more shift to the paradigm – online shopping and the further entrenchment of Amazon as a fixture in our lives. The brick-and-mortar operations have been dying a slow death for years, but the pandemic seems to have finished them off.
Think about movies for a second. AMC was struggling so much during the pandemic that they would rent ENTIRE THEATERS for $100 (it’s more expensive now, but still an option). And now, with streaming services like HBOMax, first-run movies are appearing online at the same time they’re opening in theaters. Now, let me think – spend $15 per ticket for a movie, somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 per person for concessions, then sit in a darkened room for two hours with a bunch of strangers for two hours; or, pop some popcorn in the microwave, sit in my comfy chair and watch the latest iteration of Dune. No contest.
And that’s to say nothing of how the pandemic has further polarized us as a society. I knew we all had contempt for each other when it came to religion and politics, but I never thought we’d argue about science. Science. I’ve spent the past two years keeping up with the latest research on COVID-19, an obligation I feel as a physician to do, only to be told that studies being conducted are “my opinion.” I was used to being outshined by Google, but it was a new experience to lose out to YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and a podcast by a guy who used to make a living watching people eat bull penises for forty grand. Strange days, indeed.
So, I guess what I’m saying is this: I’m hopeful for a future where we don’t have to wear masks everywhere. I think eventually, people won’t give you dirty looks if you have a cough due to allergies. We may be able to go to concerts without having proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.
I have doubts, though. I don’t think malls will recover. Our food industry is in shambles, but not having a McDonald’s on every block may not be a bad thing. I also think the days of $8/hr jobs are a thing of the past. Movie theaters may close across the country. One thing I didn’t anticipate was the demise of Victoria’s Secret, although in a nation where the economy is struggling, the segment of the population that can afford a $75 bra goes way down.
There’s been a lot of discussion of “new normal,” and I have many friends who hate the term. Of all the things that are here to say, I’m afraid that expression is among the things that will have sticking power. Try to navigate your new normal as freely as possible, and as always…