When headlines began to declare last week that a vaccine was good to go and that the most vulnerable could start receiving it as early as the first week of December, my soul did a funny thing. It leapt. It did a little air punch and went “yeah!” but this celebratory motion of the spirit was quickly followed by a sense of, “oh.”
Maybe you experienced it yourself. It was like sensing that a long illness is over (“yeah!”) and that you can finally get out of bed and go back to work (“oh.”)
I know I won’t be the only one who experienced this. Ever since the pandemic began there have been environmentalists and anti-capitalists for example who, while lamenting the crisis, were able to see from their vantage points that “normal” had always been part of the problem. We should use the time afforded by the pandemic, they said, to regroup and come up with a better model for life.
Chief among our concerns about so-called normality are unnecessary commuting to work in cars and ram-packed trains, unnecessary economic activity full stop, and flying around in planes for frequent holidays and meetings. I often think of Mark Boyle who, in his book, goes back to the land and sees a plane overhead from his tiny Irish smallholding. He reflects on how alien it would be to him now to fly for an overseas holiday and he says something shruggish (I can’t find the exact quote) along the lines of “I guess that’s just what people do now.” It’s the implication that we’ve all just sleepwalked into what is actually a fairly remarkable and unsustainable “normal” of technologically miraculous but ecologically and socially irresponsible pursuits.
It’s wonderful that we can just take off and go to another country at the drop of a hat. Wonderful! But, historically (by which I mean by comparison to the past and the future) a bit odd. News that 1% of people are responsible for half of all flight emissions has made me feel less guilty about my love of mobility but I’d still like to fly less and for other people to fly less too.
The biggest event I had to cancel in March 2020 was a trip to Portugal. I was already jonesing for travel at that point, having not been anywhere for about a year. I haven’t been grounded for so long since that football went through the neighbour’s window in 1989. In practice, it hasn’t been so bad to go deep instead of wide but I’d still love to have width as an option again, which is probably how a lot of people feel about the return to work.
Still, going deep instead of wide has paid dividends for those willing and able to embrace it, and it would be a shame to completely give it all up.
A return to the old pace of life is being cautioned against, not just by passionate activists but by easygoing newspaper columnists. Here’s Nesrine Malik this morning on how the activities with which she has filled her pandemic time are threatened by the return to normality:
With the suspension of the mindless daily activity of normal life, an entire hinterland of dormant relationships emerged. But even as I tried to pick up these pieces my brain kept skipping forward. I found myself dreaming of the time when the everyday could restart again – even though, in all likelihood, that would mean these threads being buried once more.
In no longer having to travel for work, she says, she’s been able to put time into important correspondence, feeling out and maintaining important human connections. Should we really sacrifice this, along with everything else, for the return to normality?
That we have a vaccine and the end of the pandemic is in sight is undoubtedly a good thing. I just wish there had been more of an appetite for regrouping and questioning the nature of our return to normality. There has been a certain line of questioning, but I suspect that most people are going stir-crazy at home and just want to get back to flying around and driving and shopping and going to work like they used to.
I also suspect we will see busybodies of various official stripes, out in force, saying “back to work, you,” “back to work, you.” I predict a moralistic pressure that we all “do our bit” to get the floundering economy back on its feet despite the fact that working from home instead of the office has born no significant reduction in productivity.
Will we return to a “normal” rejigged to be less competitive, more sustainable, more spiritually-rewarding? Or will the extrovert ideal once again prevail though, by its nature, shouting the loudest? We shall see.