(Re)defining Normal

So here we are, ten days until Christmas, a year since the Coronavirus was first reported, and nine months since the pandemic was declared. I think we’re all getting tired of it. I know I am.

I’m not the only one who is finding it hard to achieve anything these days. Russell Wangersky is a Newfoundland writer, who is also one of my favourite newspaper columnists. He recently described how his reactions to adversity are changing.

An axe sticks in the log he’s trying to split, he stops splitting wood; the glue won’t hold on a repair, it takes three times as long to fix the problem; a shed roof leaks but he can’t replace the material because the pandemic has interrupted the supply chain, and none is available.

His response to all this? He gives up and goes for a walk in the woods, wishing things were back to normal. Those three little things have thrown him. Three little things which, in the past, he would no doubt have resolved with ease. Three little things which, in the wider scheme of things, are nothing more than irritations and inconveniences. And yet his day is ruined. He is starting to feel depressed. He wants to return to normal.

But do we remember what ‘normal’ was like? Earlier this morning I re-read my ‘End Time Blues’ blog from last December, which reported that there were so many not-good things happening and yet made no mention whatsoever of COVID-19 or a possible global pandemic. The thing is, those not-good things have continued happening, we have all just been ignoring them as we grapple to learn the language of social-distancing, face masks, and hand-sanitizers.

My response to the chaos of 2019 was to dry a selection of pole beans, various heritage varieties which I had grown over the summer, and then sell them at the Christmas Craft Market as Apocalixir Beans. The basic premise was that if the Zombie Apocalypse arrived, one could hide in the basement and cook the beans and live on them, the elixir of life, until things quietened down. And if there was no Zombie Apocalypse by June (2020), you could plant them in your garden and grow your own crop for next year. I sold a number of jars, mostly to people who thought they’d make a great ‘gag gift’ for someone.

The Farmers’ Market was closed down in March, and then reopened as an outdoor market during the summer. Unfortunately, my daughter owns and operates a cheese supply company and was therefore not able to participate, as the Health inspectors were not keen on her sitting in a parking lot cutting up wheels of Brie. Eventually, in late October, it was decided that the indoor market could open again, albeit with a limited number of customers, and I got my Saturday job back.

As the customers returned, I met up once more with some of the people who had bought my beans last year. They reported two things. First, some told me that they had been pleased to have the little jars on hand during the shortages of spring, providing a modicum of comfort when food, toilet paper and other essentials were in short supply. Second, others said that they had planted the beans in a sunny spot and grew their own vines, and in some cases even got the plants to harvest.

So, both advertised options were apparently feasible and illustrated the foresight of the purchasers, as well as the old adage that many a truth is spoken in jest. Sadly, the Christmas Craft Market was cancelled this year, due to COVID restrictions and a mini-outbreak here on the Island. Which is sad because I had another good harvest and could have tried to sell my Apocalixir Beans again. If things were normal.

It seems to me that this might be part of the problem. We’re having a hard time getting our heads around the possibility (fact?) that things are probably not going to be going ‘back to normal’.

Indeed, perhaps it is time that we recognized that we are going to have to create a new normal for our lives. What might that look like? How might we adapt to life with COVID?

Our adaptations will no doubt be based on three hopes. But these are just hopes, they are not predictions. Because really, who knows what the heck is going to happen next? And let’s face it, even hope has a serious downside these days.

First, we hope that the supply chain will ensure that the newly developed vaccines get to everyone who wants to have them. That said, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the process of vaccinating the population won’t be completed until towards the end of 2021, and that’s only for those of us fortunate enough to live in a western industrialized country with a strong infrastructure.

There are many parts of the world where the ability to store a vaccine at -80 simply does not exist. Even within the WEIRD countries (i.e., those that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), populations who are unable to travel to the place where the vaccine can be stored are going to be out of luck for a while, as apparently the people have to go to the needle, not the other way round. So, unless you are independently mobile, and live in an urban centre with a designated freezer, your time will come later rather than sooner.

Second, we hope that we will not have terrible forest or bush fires, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, significant conflicts, asteroid impacts, winter storms, plagues of locusts and other pestilences. The effects of a changing climate are being experienced across the planet and are visible everywhere except on the 24 hours news channels. According to Copernicus, the EU Climate Change Service, November 2020 was the warmest November since records began.

The Arctic Institute notes that the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the permafrost is melting, leading not only to an impact on infrastructure but also to the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Oh, and just for fun, that is raising a concern that viruses which have been frozen for thousands of years will begin to thaw out and bring old pestilences back to life. Soon we might be saying, “move over, COVID, there’s a new game in town.”

Third, we hope that we shall all get to travel internationally again. The reliance of so many economies on unfettered tourism has been exposed this year. Those of us who live in places that others like to visit found that the pandemic exacerbated the chasm between those who own tourist operations and those who work in the industry. The large resorts were able to pivot and restructure themselves as ‘isolation hotels’, where returning residents and essential workers could stay for their required quarantines. The people who sold the gifts in the craft shops, meanwhile, were laid off and forced onto government support. They will probably not be hired back until the cruise ships return, or the airlines resume service.

One day, perhaps towards the end of next year but perhaps more likely in 2022, the WEIRD countries will have reached ‘herd immunity’ against COVID-19. We still may not know whether this requires just the one vaccination, or becomes an annual event like the flu shot, but at least most people will be immunized. There seems to be an agreement among epidemiologists that 70% of the population need to be either recovered from the coronavirus or else vaccinated against it in order for herd immunity to be achieved.

That might work on a local or even national level in many countries, but it will be very difficult in others. There are currently 7.8 billion people in the world, which means that someone will have to make 5.46 billion doses, sometimes double ones. Media reports indicate that “according to health officials, each box containing the vaccines … will need to be opened and unpacked manually at specially licensed sites. The shots also have to be checked by a specialist medical logistics company to ensure there was no damage in transit.”

How is the vaccine going to be delivered to the islands of Papua New Guinea, the mountains of central Afghanistan, the villages of the Šar region of the Balkans, all places where I have lived and worked? It’s going to take months, if not years, to get this vaccine out to the global community.

I had intended that this would be a ‘feel good’ blog, something to cheer me up (and hopefully you as well!) in the days before this most unChristmaslike of Christmases. I was thinking of the year ahead, of all the things I’d like to do, of all the places I’d like to visit. Sadly, the world got in the way, and those thoughts will have to wait until another blog.

till, I am grateful that I can follow Russell Wangersky’s lead, and go for a walk in my garden and the adjacent fields and woods. I’ve just got to find my mask.

4 thoughts on “(Re)defining Normal

  1. Tim, I am always cheered by your blogs even if they are depressing. I am hoping you will write the autobiography one day. Love to you all from the UK (Tier 4!)

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  2. Tom, what I realize with the pandemic, is my constant need to readjust my lens. Like a need to refocus in light of new scientific reports, articles, news… We kind of left the world of some predictability for a world of heavy uncertainty. Not easy to put words on the feelings that come with that, and you are doing it so well. Thanks for the great read.
    Suzie

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  3. Excellent piece of writing Tim. Insightful and good meaningful analysis of the state of the world at Christmas 2020.

    Merry Christmas to you, Sally and the family.

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