Why the pre-Covid normal is not good enough

That vaccines are now available is a relief, but in the haste to get back to the 'good old days', we risk failing to address yet again their troubling aspects

All the effort so far has been to try to recreate the normal we had before. But that normal had many problematic issues, and some of them require urgent action, says the author.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

There will never be another year like 2020, not in my lifetime anyway.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a life-changing event that ranked among the most disruptive in modern history.

Everything changed overnight - the way we lived, worked and played. Cities ground to a halt, airplanes stopped flying, borders were closed, face masks became mandatory and more than 1.6 million people died from the infection.

It is not over yet and the worst may still visit us. But now that several vaccines have proved to be effective against the virus, there is finally reason to hope that the recovery back to normalcy can finally begin. Normal has never looked so wanted and inviting.

But though much has changed, I am not sure enough thought has been given to what it is that we want to go back to.

In the headlong rush to get back to the new normal, or whatever you call it, we are in danger of ignoring the most important question, which is where exactly we want to head back to.

If you think about it, all the effort so far has been to try to recreate what was before. We meet over Zoom to reclaim our working life, so that we can continue to work on the very same thing. Travel bubbles hope to get us back to travelling like before, when going to Bangkok or Hong Kong was just another weekend trip.

Even in sports, it does not matter if football is played in empty stadiums as long as the matches can be beamed into living rooms around the world, like it used to be.

Then there is the race to develop a vaccine, put it in production and set up the logistics to immunise millions of people in as short a time as possible.

It has required enormous effort by scientists, drug companies and governments working at unprecedented speed, demonstrating how much can be achieved when people put their minds and capabilities together towards a common goal.

In the next few months and possibly over much of next year, all the news and focus will be on how to get vaccinated, who will get it first and how to move back to normal when enough people are finally immunised.

Full speed ahead on autopilot

Once the vaccination machinery gets going, you can be sure we will be on autopilot to get back to where we were before, and at full speed.

Will there be time to think and reflect on why normal may not be good enough?

In the early days of the pandemic, there were calls to make use of the forced lockdown to hit the pause button, take a good hard look at what we were doing that might have caused the pandemic or which it had inadvertently exposed. The issues included climate change, access to public health, the disruptions created by unthinking globalisation, and the problem of inequality with the poor and vulnerable being the most likely to die of the disease.

The hope was that these issues would be dealt with and not forgotten once the danger had passed. I fear it will not happen as the desire to get back to normal quickly overrides everything else.

As the pandemic wore on, fatigue set in. That is why it has been so hard in places such as in Europe and the United States to keep up the vigilance necessary to control the spread of the virus. They are now seeing another wave of surging infections, and possibly another round of lockdown. Who can blame them for wanting to get back to normal as soon as possible?

Unresolved problems

But normal had many problematic issues, and some of them require urgent action, such as climate change. It was reported recently that a new British study on how the lockdown has slowed down global warming wasn't that heart-warming. Though there were significant reductions in greenhouse gases and pollutants from the sharp fall in air and urban travel, scientists have calculated that the long-term impact is insignificant - lowering global temperatures by only 0.01 deg C by 2030.

It shows how much more needs to be done to make a real difference. This includes not just reducing the use of fossil fuel but also developing greener and more sustainable energy sources and using them to power newer technology.

It is the same with tackling society's inequality. The pandemic showed if nothing else that no one is safe unless everybody is, no matter who you are, what job you do and how much wealth you possess. Because everyone matters, you have to make sure all are taken care of and that the poorest and most vulnerable have a decent standard of living and access to basic needs such as healthcare and education.

That's what narrowing the income and wealth gap is about. The old normal did not understand this and did a poor job of tackling it. Do we really want to get back to it in a hurry?

Han Fook Kwang is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.