BY DR THILAN U HEWAGE
“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job, you need, to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it” – Ellen Goodman
The use of the term ‘new normal’ has already become normal in our daily conversations due to life-style adjustments we have had to make in order to protect ourselves from Covid-19. It is not normal for the society to be isolated.
It is not normal to see people, who have been controlling and managing their diabetes and or hypertension for years, die suddenly without even showing any other symptom. Careful use of phrases such as ‘new normal’ coerce us to get used to the situation without trying to think extensively about how and why we are in this situation and what are the fundamental transformations we will experience in the near future. It is also a way to implant the idea that things will never be the same as before and therefore be ready for a new world order.
Poor and weak left offline
What are the psychological impacts not only on the families who lost their loved ones and or who had to experience the horror of getting infected, but also on those who lost their livelihood and in some cases lost even the house they lived in? With the emphasis on online education, tele medicine, work-from-home (WFH) and all other digital solutions and virtual engagements, we have forgotten about the three billion of our fellow human beings who are offline.
Ruling elite and the rich taking care of themselves leaving the poor and the weak behind is nothing new in this competitive world where the ends justify the means.
When the employers and employees began to enjoy all the benefits of WFH strategies, most of the people thought it would be the ‘workplace new normal’. While some companies such as Twitter and Square have offered all their employees, the option of WFH continuously others like Apple and Google have given that choice only to some employees who have the security clearance to do so.
Some companies have a lot to lose through industrial espionage and the risks of allowing remote access to their servers outweigh the benefits of WFH strategies. Though employers can save on office space rentals, furniture, utility and accommodation and transportation, the employees will experience reduced benefits such as housing and transport allowances and or company subsidised loans and, in some cases, even pay cuts due to lower cost of living outside the city.
Studies show that only about 50% of the employees around the world are willing to take up on the offer to WFH continuously due to variety of reasons, some of which are psychological issues related to ‘hunter-gatherer’ instincts of human beings. Having a meal by oneself in front of a video screen looking at others eating in their homes is, for most people, not the same as going out to lunch with friends and office mates to their favourite restaurant and meeting with regulars from other offices in the area for a lunchtime chat. Social interactions in and around the office not only add to the mental wellbeing of the employee but also stimulate the segment of the economy that mainly depends on the workers’ gathering at office clusters in and around the city.
There are restaurants, cafes, clothing stores, electronic shops, dry cleaners, pharmacies, gyms, and street vendors such as food carts and shoe-repair men counting on people coming to work in the city every morning and patronising their businesses.
Problems in work from home
It is highly unlikely that people will settle for cities with empty buildings and sidewalks with only a bunch of delivery vehicles running around where all the office work and buying and selling are taking place online. Employees who have been enjoying the luxury of not having to be stuck in rush-hour traffic through their daily commute and the flexible work hours and feel that they have proven that they can be as productive and innovative working from home as they were in the office, may very well question employers’ motive if the WFH options are terminated after the pandemic.
However, employers not only have to look at the efficiency and productivity of individual employees but also the overall company culture and mentoring, guiding, and training that take place naturally through personal interactions of junior and senior employees in the office setting.
Contrary to the popular belief that WFH option will encourage more women to join the labour force the US labor statistics show that three million women have left the workforce in 2020. Studies show that women found it more difficult to balance their roles as mothers, wives, caregivers, and employees when they are at home. Most of the employers did not have a mechanism to address such issues either.
Another industry receiving the bad end of the pandemic is transportation. Not only the local bus and van or the taxi owner but also the international airlines are badly affected by the reduction of daily commute as well as all other work-related and leisure travel.
The business and leisure travel and the airline and hotel industries are so closely connected that one will find very difficult to survive without the other. Revenue from the business travel has accounted for 60% to 70% of the pre-pandemic revenue in the airline industry.
With all the travel restrictions and online business meetings, the hotel industry has seen a drastic dip in their revenue as well. Some airlines and hotels have already filed for bankruptcy while others have reduced the number of employees dramatically.
This will lead to increases in ticket prices for air travel and room charges in hotels even after the pandemic, extending the recovery period of tourism industry to another two to three years at the least.
Is the ‘new normal’ going to be without air travel? Would the countries depending on tourism as a main source of income have to tighten their belts, reduce corruption, and come up with alternative methods of income generation using their own natural and human resources?
Education and healthcare sectors also tried online procedures minimizing human contacts under emergency situations.
However, the number of countries that are starting to provide those services in person is on the rise as they gain control over the pandemic with higher percentages of the population being vaccinated. Though there will always be innovative ways to use technology in almost every aspect of human existence, it is doubtful that artificial intelligence or algorithms will ever be able to create anything similar to the energy transformation that takes place when humans communicate with each other in person.
To understand whether there really is a ‘new normal’, one has to first understand what the ‘old normal’ has been. Using the existing knowledge and technology while experimenting with newer and more innovative methods to improve the living standards has always been normal in the human habitat. What has also been normal is the practice that these same innovative technologies and methods being used by the corrupt politicians and their supporting staff, white-collar criminals, thieves, paedophiles, sex traffickers, rapists, smugglers, spies, mercenaries and even terrorists and warlords. Even the religious establishments and Governments of countries have used them against each other when in the opposite sides of a war.
If one experiences the same chaos on the road with the majority breaking the road rules and also the same type of reactions from other drivers and the law enforcement where everyone seems to have accepted the unwritten rule of the ‘survival of the fittest’ then, the ‘normal’ on the road will not be anything ‘new’ even if the vehicles are newer and the drivers are wearing masks, literally as well as metaphorically.
The writer has served in higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at email@example.com