IT’S the new normal, so TT’s health officials have been saying. The phrase, the new normal, is not new. The phrase was first used by American economic adviser and businessman Mohamed El-Erian in a 2010 lecture to refer to financial conditions following the 2007-2008 financial crisis. But what does the new normal mean in the age of covid19?
In an April 29 Newsday article, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Roshan Parasram described aspects of the new normal as "continued hand hygiene, observing cough etiquette, social distancing; using masks where appropriate and the continued sanitisation of surfaces.” The Ministry of Health has since launched an advertising campaign about the new normal. The campaign tells people to wear a mask; keep distance from others; stay home if ill; wash hands often with soap and water and or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser; cough into a tissue or into the crook of the elbow; avoid touching the face and clean then sanitise surfaces.
But the definition of new normal is deeper than that for sociologist Dr Tyehimba Salandy and Independent Senator and Medical Board president Dr Varma Deyalsingh.
Salandy says the new normal has wide-ranging implications for education, international travel, employment, international relations, the tourism sector, agriculture and food security.
Apart from hygiene changes, he sees the new normal increasing online transactions and experiences. He said the nature of work will change with flexitime (a system where employees choose start and finishing times), online meetings and telecommuting (work from home) being features of the new workplace.
While the covid19 pandemic has brought with it many challenges, Salandy said a “golden opportunity” is now open to TT. The last time TT had a “golden opportunity” like this was in the aftermath of the 1970 Black Power Movement and it was squandered, he said.
“From Independence to now, TT has pursued various development models ranging from Sir Arthur Lewis’ Industrialisation by Invitation to Vision 2020/2030 to the People’s Partnership’s Seven Interconnected Pillars for Sustainable Development. These frameworks generally have not been properly thought out and have taken the country into a state of further dependency, wastage and ecological destruction. Although we had the means to, lip service was paid to consideration of the environment, preserving green and community spaces and investing in renewable energy. Over the last 20 years, the country has spent over TT$500 billion and we do not have one green public building.
“This crisis is a golden opportunity to reset the destructive pathway we have been on,” he said.
Salandy said the Government has to pay attention to how it makes its decisions and draw upon the knowledge and experience of indigenous and grassroots thinkers and not just the business and political elite.
The covid19 pandemic has also exposed the level of inequality in the society. “It is easy for people to stay at home and social distance when their houses, amenities and luxuries can accommodate that. What about those who depend on day-to-day hustling to survive, who cannot buy two weeks worth of groceries or in situations where it isn't comfortable having everyone stay in the house all day? I know families who are facing eviction because of being unable to pay the rent. Though the process is there for persons to sign up for government assistance, I am aware of persons needing urgent assistance who have signed up a while now and have not gotten through.”
It has also exposed the digital divide (the chasm between those who have access to computers and internet and those who do not). Some people are not able to participate fully in the expanding new society as they do not have access. “This is particularly a concern for children who do not have access to the internet and devices to access remote learning and other online experiences. Even with those who have access, parents and guardians have to be careful of over exposing children to electronic devices …,” he said.
People are suffering now and he foresees things becoming worse. More people will lose jobs.
But out of every dark cloud there’s a silver lining, well, at least, that is how Salandy sees it in this case. The covid19 pandemic has brought some positives such as people planting their own food, preparing home-cooked meals and spending time with close family, he said. He said people are now forced to be creative and make life changes.
People should now be thinking about composting and home gardening; rethinking food security; how plants, micro-organisms and animals are treated in general.
“Whether it is agriculture for home use or on a larger scale, regenerative and ecological forms of agriculture that work in tandem with nature is what should be encouraged,” in a post covid19 TT. “People should also be thinking about building alternative and sustainable communities, co-operatives and systems of learning,” he added.
Salandy said covid19 is here to stay and that means the world as it is now known will never be the same.
Deyalsingh too said the covid19 pandemic and the new normal will greatly change how TT is run. Healthcare, recreation, education and the economy are some of the sectors he identified as changing with the covid19 pandemic.
In the post covid19 TT and world, Deyalsingh said there will be changes in public protocol. He said the Government should legislate for mandatory wearing of masks in public spaces and a fine for not observing physical distancing. He offered a number of suggestions among them that all businesses should have hand sanitisers or gloves for those entering and handling goods; wash terminals at public spaces and temperature scans at various places with people being able to call in authorities to report fevers. Some of these measures have already been put in place since the announcement of the phased reopening of the economy on May 9 and the reopening of some businesses on May 11.
He made further suggestions about what should happen as restrictions are eased such as fewer seating in restaurants and cinemas.
Like Salandy, Deyalsingh sees some negative effects from the new normal such as work becoming a luxury and people being exploited as they need their jobs.
He said there will be increased telemedicine but also efforts to improve primary healthcare; more vaccinations, shorter working hours and a greater role for health inspectors.
Life in TT will change with things like bars having to implement physical distancing measures and having less people inside.
He also suggested the strengthening of e-learning platforms and a shift system in schools to prevent overcrowding. He said as the world economy begins to reopen, societal change comes with it and “with any new social change there must be a sequential process of understanding, adjusting and coping.”
New changes will be met with resistance but it was critical that leadership communicate why certain measures were being introduced and the benefits.
For St Joseph resident Helen Kennedy the new normal is very challenging.
She knows it will require some getting used to even though the measures are life preserving. She worries most about those life-preserving measures not being observed by all.
“That creates a heightened level of anxiety for me,” she said in online responses.
Kennedy, too, does not see life returning to the way it was before.
“Today it’s covid19, tomorrow it’s God alone knows what. We will always be anxious about a pandemic or other crisis that descends on us in epic proportions.”
As TT lives through the covid19 pandemic and its changes, Kennedy hopes for continued proper hygiene. She also hopes people, “embrace the fragility of life and appreciate and treat those around us with kindness and respect.”