Safe to say that our peer group, which is hovering at the intersection of Generation X and Generation Y, has seen a lot of change. We were the first set of young adolescents to have home computers. We witnessed the birth of the internet. We have seen the evolution of gaming systems from the old-school tennis games on Atari to some crazy new virtual reality ‘gaming’ systems. Our relationship with telecom started with landlines (and the constant fights with siblings over phone time!) and has seamlessly flowed to cordless phones to cell phones to smart phones. We used to make mixed tapes, then moved to CDs till MP3s blew our mind; now we can’t live without Spotify. And let’s not forget the unleashing of social media, which seems to have fundamentally altered our sense of self; now it seems most of our time is spent trying to project the best version of ourselves. The cultural implications of the agricultural and the industrial revolutions took almost half a century to embed themselves as a new way of life. The digital revolution, however, has been like the flow of an unending current. It comes in waves, a quick succession of ceaseless waves, and each wave brings a new technological breakthrough that very rapidly goes from being a novelty to a way of life. For example, Alexa seems to be everyone’s best friend these days, and I don’t think anyone of us can imagine life without an iphone.
The changes we have witnessed have not been limited to technology and its impact on our way of life. We have also lived through September 11th; and have felt firsthand the Muslim worlds altered relationship with the West. Most of us were in college at the time of September 11th; many of us in the US. Overnight, a deep sense of alienation set in. We have struggled to carve out a space us ‘progressive’ Muslims since; almost trapped between two worlds. September 11th not only impacted our notions of identify as we navigated our way through an increasingly globalized world, but also had very real implications in terms of global mobility. Most of us have had to go through the indignity of ‘random’ checks at international airports. Tourist visas, work visas, business visas…. all became scarce luxuries overnight.
I do not want overdramatize what my generation has lived through, our parents and grandparents have lived through significant technological breakthroughs and have also witnessed the horror of two World Wars, not to mention, the trauma of Partition; but I can only speak of what I know. And I have known the impact of the digital revolution and the aftermath of September 11th intimately.
Having said all of this; COVID-19 is an altogether different beast. It’s not an unprecedented event or a radical technological breakthrough; its much more invasive than that. Covid-19 is like a cloud of smoke; its shapeless, its growing and its spreading wherever the wind carries it. It can permeate anywhere at any time. We can’t even hide in our homes; this smoke can creep in through the cracks. I never thought I would live to see what we are witnessing these days. Mammoth economies are paralyzed. The whole world has very literally has come to a grinding halt. I have always felt that the metaphor of hamster running in the wheel is an apt depiction for the frenzied pace of modern life. But Covid has put a spanner in that wheel or maybe even killed the hamster… I can’t tell which. In some ways, the world seems more divided than ever. People want someone to blame; toxic rhetoric and open racism is manifested in most public discourse. Some leaders are promoting the idea of a unified global response, while ever more are preaching a more nationalist and insular approach of self-preservation.
Till we have a vaccine, it seems we will remain in this state of suspended animation. This state of suspended animation, as I like to call it, is evolving into the ‘new normal’. Suspended animation is ‘the temporary (short or long term) slowing of biological function so that physiological capabilities are preserved’. So right now, our lives (not out biological functions) are in a state of suspended animation. Our lives are so slowed down, they are almost at standstill. I started this lockdown all productive and ready to make the most of the current situation. I set up a home gym, bought a new bike, upgraded my home entertainment system, downloaded Houseparty and I even started to cook! I found that I was being productive at work; the nature of my work is such that I am very involved in public policy, so the Covid Crisis permeated into my daily work, as such, it seemed relevant and kept me motivated. I was sleeping more, partying less and generally enjoying the slower pace of life. But then the reality of the situation started to sink in. This was not just a temporary reprieve from normal life. This was the beginning of the end; nothing would be the same after this.
To be perfectly honest, what started freaking me out most was the fact that there seems to be no end in sight. WHO has raised a red flag that we may not find a vaccine anytime soon, and as such, we should brace ourselves for the reality that the Covid smoke will not blow away anytime soon? But what the hell does that even mean? Zoom will be the new reality for working folk for the indefinite future. While this was fun as a novelty, you cannot build a sense of comradery over Zoom; you need to go out on cigarette breaks with your colleagues to vent about your boss to build that kind of rapport. And this issue of the disconnect resulting from virtual relationships is more acute for children in school. While I salute the technology-based solutions many educational institutions are adopting, kids need to school not just for academic enrichment, but also to learn to be social beings. To engage with their peer group, to forge friendships and to learn how to compromise. There is a risk that isolation and alienation will become part and parcel of life in this new normal.
And let’s not forget, travel will never be the same. By media accounts, most airlines now want all aircrew to wear hazmat suits and passengers must always wear masks. Imagine wearing a mask on a 15-hour flight to NYC, I can’t keep it on for 5 minutes without feeling claustrophobic. It is anticipated that check-ins for international flights will take up to 6 hours and all lounges will be closed. And what about once you get to your destination? Safe to say, holidays will look altogether different too. Bars, clubs, restaurants, music festivals, shopping malls……nothing will be the same. And then there are all the mundane things which will also change. Will we ever shake hands or hug people in greeting again? Can we ever again blow out the candles on our birthday cakes; that does not seem Covid safe. I’m sure I sound very tone deaf. And I apologize for that. I know that the new normal I have highlighted comes from a place of great privilege. Many people will have their lives and livelihoods completely shattered. Families who have lost loved ones will carry a deep pain for the rest of their lives. The poor will become poorer, the marginalized will be pushed further to the outskirts.
But amidst all this tragedy, we have also seen the inherent beauty of humanity. We have witnessed the selfless valor of the frontline workers, the growing tsunami of charitable acts and on most days, the empathy felt for the most fragile seems to almost linger in the air. One day, hopefully not too far in the future, we will all come out on the other side of this. I am sure of that. Life may be forever altered; but we will adapt and quickly adjust to the ‘new normal’. A remote risk which movies like Contagion highlighted 20 years ago, has now become a reality. Even with a vaccine, there will always be a fear that a new pandemic will come knocking at our doors. Systems and controls to mitigate any such future risk will have to be put in place. The way we work, the way we travel, the way we socialize…… everything will have to be adjusted. This is what they are calling the ‘new normal’. But maybe we need a ‘new normal’, clearly the old normal was not working. The inequality of modern capitalism is laid bare at this time. The fragility of the planet has never been more apparent. But while we all struggle to navigate our way through this smoke; let us remain mindful of what we should carry with us as we move out of this haze. A sense of community, a compassion for the vulnerable and a belief in a better tomorrow. Let us hope and pray this devastation has not been for naught; let’s hope we can build a brave new world, recalibrated to a new normal.