What kind of normal do we want to live in?

16.04.2021

We have to get used to the virus. Instead of increasing social inequality, we should promote solidaristic togetherness.

This post already appeared in the Blog: Solidaritätsstudien in Der Standard on March 31, 2021 (in German).


We [1] are slowly getting used to the new normal [2]. Even though we would like to attend cultural or sporting events, hug parents or grandparents, dance in a club, eat a schnitzel in a restaurant or toast with a beer, social isolation and restrictions of movement have become normal. In two interview phases of the qualitative longitudinal study SolPan (Long title: Solidarity in times of a pandemic - What do people do and why?) in April 2020 and October 2020, the same 80 people living in Austria were interviewed about their lives during the pandemic. Many interviewees reported that their lives have normalised with Corona. These narratives form the basis for the following reflection on normality(s). They raise questions about what we have to get used to, what we should never get used to and what would be worth getting used to.

 

Living a different normal: Benefits of Corona [3]

In spring 2020, many interviewees reported that the new normal in the lockdown - apart from the inevitable restrictions - brought improvements to their ordinary daily lives. They described making time for things they felt they had missed out on before the pandemic, such as reading a book, exercising, or taking time to recover from a slipped disc. For example, one mother appreciated spending more time with her kindergarten-aged daughter: "The positive thing is just, we cuddle a lot more in bed and have a very relaxed and substantial breakfast, which doesn't happen under normal circumstances." It was pointed out how exhausting and overwhelming everyday life was in some cases before the lockdown.

"I would rather say that it (the lockdown) has had a positive effect, because I was rather very stressed in the last few months, and now the world is kind of slowing down, it's a deceleration. It feels good to just not be obliged to do anything all the time," said one interviewee.

The forced deceleration was perceived by many as beneficial. This was the case for all areas of life, from family life to work life to social life. One pensioner described relief at no longer going to concerts and meeting friends. (Self-imposed) social obligations were no longer necessary. These perceptions of the benefits of the pandemic open our eyes to the fact that time pressure, performance thinking and stress too often shape our social relationships - and thus other opportunities to build meaningful relationships are blocked. They open our eyes to the possibility of a different normal.

 

Facing intensified problems with solidarity

Besides the benefits that the new normal brings, it has of course also created many new problems, or exacerbated existing problems and social fissures. It has already been pointed out many times that the pandemic hits certain groups harder than others and thus injustice grows [4]. The groups severely affected include, for example, certain sectors such as gastronomy or culture, people in precarious employment [5] or women who take on care work [6]. Not surprisingly today, the epidemiological crisis was followed by a mental health crisis [7] and an economic crisis. The new normal is that of crisis.

Some of these issues were addressed, especially during the first lockdown in spring 2020, with support for people in vulnerable positions. Telephone services were offered for people who simply wanted someone to talk to. There were organised or face-to-face neighbourhood support services where elderly and immune-compromised people were offered to do errands and shopping for them. Interviewees reported experiencing social cohesion through these practices, as well as through expressions of solidarity via social media or clapping for shop assistants and people in health professions (which was also criticised by some). Reduced negative environmental impact was itself perceived as moving closer to non-human life. Cohesion was also experienced in the fact that everyone was affected by the political measures to contain the virus. In the course of the pandemic, governmental aid measures supported particularly hard-hit groups, such as artists.

 

Normalising means less solidarity

This image of a society in solidarity has changed over the course of the pandemic. In the interview phase in October 2020, people still report supportive practices, but often there was also talk of the "sense of community" having diminished. A woman with a permanent job explained:

"Then (spring 2020) there were the efforts, we'll buy for you, there were many actions from the civilian population. You get the feeling that there is now a kind of closing of ranks and that there is mutual support. (When it was reported in the media) that the dolphins were returning to Venice, there was a noticeable, wow, how good that is for environmental thinking. And when the first easing of measures occurred, it disappeared again quite quickly, at least in my perception. There was a renewed focus on comfort and this "I'm my own person".

For the woman just quoted, "moving together" disappeared because people are "simply spoiled by consumption and luxury" as well as "comfortable", leaving no room to care about others or environmental problems. But also on a practical level, some interviewees saw solidaristic practices as increasingly obsolete and no longer necessary. It seems that the urgency of the first lockdown was no longer felt, and thus the problems of others were no longer present: "When the shit hits the fan, I think cohesion is there. But as soon as things get better again, you forget about it very quickly," said a woman living in the city. An older man reported: "You don't hear anything about it any more".

The study participants also emphasised that the increase in community spirit and supportive practices was an exception. Their decrease means, in the words of one interviewee, "that a lot of things have normalised". Someone else reports: "In the first phase, there was a greater mutual consideration, an even greater consideration, let's say. That has kind of returned to normal now". In other words, what has often been described as society moving closer together was perceived as the extraordinary. One young woman described that "everything has settled down again. So now I basically have the feeling that people are somehow living more like they did before."  Normally, and that means in the old normal before Corona but also after a few months of getting used to life with Corona in the new normal, mutual support was the exception in the eyes of our interviewees. Interviewees seem to perceive the decrease in solidarity as normalisation: They describe a habituation to life with COVID-19. With habituation, problems exacerbated by the pandemic and widened social fissures are taken for granted. The problems and fissures were normal before and are normal now. Widened forms of inequality have simply become normalised.

 

What do we want to get used to?

We had to and still have to get used to living with Corona. The pandemic is forcing us into a new normal, full of epidemiological, economic, social and psychological challenges. Interviews from the Solpan study last autumn showed that there has been a normalisation of living with the virus, evidenced among other things by a decrease in solidaristic practices. But instead of simply accepting that the multiple crises have increased injustice, we could get used to a different normal: solidaristic practices at the beginning of the pandemic showed that people were willing to support each other and be there for each other. People recognised benefits of their new everyday life, which was decelerated or offered more time to cultivate meaningful interpersonal relationships. The new normal opens up spaces of change. Instead of accepting increased injustice, normalisation could mean getting used to meaningful relationships and solidaristic practices.


[1] It is far from my intention to use a rhetorical "we" to bring diverse life situations down to a common denominator. I use "we" in this blog post to emphasise that all people are currently affected by the pandemic. I also want to emphasise that people and their coexistence can only ever be understood in relation to others (for example Mackenzie, Catriona, and Natalie Stoljar, eds. 2000. Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self. New York: Oxford University Press).

[2] The term "new normal" (in German "neue Normalität") became the Austrian government's buzzword to describe the restricted life with COVID-19 containment measures. Before the pandemic, "new normal" was mentioned in the context of populism criticism: Austrian philosopher and political scientist Paul Sailer-Wlasits analysed social upheavals exemplified by Trump's political populism. He asked whether we want to get used to this - in his eyes dystopian - "new normal".

[3] This paragraph is based on a paper in progress by Wanda Spahl, Mirjam Pot und Katharina T. Paul (Working Title “Practices and meanings of (non-)compliance: Negotiating rule following, self-protection and solidarity during COVID-19 in Austria”).

[4] For example, Hetan Shah discusses societal challenges in the comment "COVID-19 recovery: science isn’t enough to save us" in Nature on May 23, 2021.

[5] In a study about a Muslim community in the UK, Hassan et al. (2021) find that working conditions impede physical distancing in the pandemic.

[6] Interview (in German) from February 23, 2021 with Barbara Rothmüller and Laura Wiesböck about the ongoing study „Intimität, Sexualität und Solidarität in der COVID-19 Pandemie“

[7] Craig Morgan und Nikolas Rose: A mental health epidemic caused by coronavirus can be avoided if we act now. Independent. 10.10.2020.

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