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 breath, you are sure to realise that you don’t miss everything about ‘those days’ as there were things you wished would change. Alongside all the dislocation and the untold suffering, the coronavirus pandemic is thus an opportunity to create a new normal that is better than the old one.
As a society we will have to deal with the most demanding challenges of the here and the now: of containing the spread of the coronavirus; of having to protect hundreds of millions of people whose livelihoods are tenuous; of reviving an economy that has taken a historic battering; of rebuilding a fraying social harmony; and of negotiating the balance between individual liberty and the power of the state. We have no choice but to confront these challenges — with a Stoic mindset, as I wrote two weeks ago — but we also have an unprecedented opportunity in shaping the neighbourhood, village, city, country and the world we want to live in.
Status quo can be altered
A fact that strikes my public policy students — mostly working professionals from various backgrounds — quite early in their course is that most of India’s problems are hard to solve because they are log-jammed. The status quo is often a sub-optimal equilibrium, but an equilibrium nevertheless. Even if you try to change things, they fall back into the rut.
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 U-turn, pedestrians walk on the street because the footpath is blocked by vendors and so on. In the pre-pandemic normal, everyone knew that this 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. While most 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 lockdown offers several weeks wherein urban infrastructure can be put in 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 evolved against spitting and public urination. By no means a silver bullet, the pandemic and the resultant lockdown relaxe some of the acute constraints that previously made reform impossible.
Lessons from lockdown
The traffic problem is just one example. The point is that we can move to a new, better social equilibrium. In four weeks of lockdown, a lot of people have realised that they can effectively work from home. Schools have found that they can easily move many classes online without affecting learning outcomes. Similarly, many types of meetings and events can easily take place over the internet. Even some medical consultations can be carried out remotely. One of my communications engineering professors used to say that “it’s more efficient to move signals than move mass”. Indeed, we have discovered that we might have been moving around more than is necessary. Whenever the lockdown ends, employers and institutions should not automatically move everything back offline. Saving trips means lesser traffic, cleaner air and a greener planet.
Staggered working hours, reduction of waste, e-commerce, contactless delivery, attention to public hygiene and direct charity to help needy people in our local communities are all good habits that can transform the way we live. We will have to make a conscious attempt to retain them in the post-pandemic world.
Adaptation is key
Not all of this will be pleasant and painless. In many sectors, entrepreneurs are fighting for survival. Many fear that the pandemic has fatally destroyed their business models and they might have to start from scratch. A friend who runs a chain of restaurants in Bengaluru said that the outlook for his industry was bleak, and while he was mentally prepared to start all over again, “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.
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, stimulants, intoxicants, sex, spirituality, personal vanity, the desire for status, recognition and community. There will be better equilibrium points at the intersection of change and constance. We will have to find them. The post-pandemic normal can be better than the pre-pandemic one, if we make it so.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.