A new normal awaits

For the first two seconds after I wake up, everything is normal.

I open my eyes, and I see the sycamore tree out my window. The buds on the sycamore are not open yet, but somehow every morning the tree grows infinitesimally greener: it’s entirely undetectable in the same way your little girl’s change in height is undetectable; you see her every day and one day she’s up to your shoulder and you never noticed how that happened.

Somewhere in the frantic rush of neurons in those first two seconds after waking, the dawning reality comes. It feels like we’re living in the first half hour of a disaster movie, the scenes where everyone goes about like normal because they’re inside the movie and know nothing about the posters and the trailers announcing the terror that awaits.

But it’s not a disaster movie. It’s really happening, and everyone who’s paying attention is scared.

And somehow there is a fine line to be walked, with a precipice falling away on both sides.

On our left is ignorance, and it’s up to all of us to climb out of that as quickly as we can.

On our right, though, is something equally damaging: hyper-awareness to everything that’s going on, everywhere in the world, right now.

Of all the technologies that have inveigled their way into all our lives these past ten years, the instantaneous nature of Twitter means it is perfectly set up for situations such as this.

Perfectly set up to provide real-time updates to a situation that has been evolving in real time, and global updates on a situation that effects the entire globe.

So if lots of people are paying hyper-attention, refreshing feeds and following hashtags, and if everyone who’s paying attention is scared, then the maths are simple: many, many people are very scared right now, and a lot of scared people is a recipe for lots of dangerous sideshows to the main challenge, and empty supermarket shelves might just be the start of things getting worse before they get better.

The three-foot-wide path

But between those two precipices, there is still that three-foot-wide path to be walked.

And if we’re fortunate enough to be well enough to be able to clamber up here, to leave both ignorance and hyper-awareness to external matters behind for a few moments, we can stand up and pause for a moment and breathe deep in the cool, clean air.

Those of us up here, we’re up here together. We can extend a hand down both sides to all those clambering up. There’s room enough for all of us.

Up here, in this realm of thoughts and ideas and words, a realm at slight remove from the physical world in which our bodies live, we can dispense for a moment with social distancing.

Up here, we can allow our ideas and words and thoughts to embrace and commingle.

Up here, we can forget about the ignorant: the crowds at Disneyworld and the Stereophonics concert and the pub revellers packed in cheek-by-jowl singing Sweet Caroline at the top of their voices.

Up here, we can forget about the hyper-awareness: the hearsay and the rumour-mongers and the harbingers of doom.

We can choose to seek out the trusted channels, and blot out all the rest.

We can choose to think about this pause and shift as a moment in time, the likes of which we’ve never seen before and the likes of which we’ll never forget.

We can choose to see in this moment in time an opportunity to consider how we behave: to ourselves, to others and to the world around us.

We can choose to be honest and humble about the uncertainty and hypocrisy that surrounds every one of us.

And we can choose, each of us, to step up and lead the way forward, into a new way and a new world that will be different in many ways to the one we’ve just left behind.

The front line

Businesses large and small will falter and die, livelihoods will disappear in a heartbeat, economies will crash.

And all of that is important, and troubling, but all of that in the short term is largely secondary to those who find themselves on the front line now.

The trenches now are not foxholes in the mud, but testing centres and triage rooms and intensive care units.

The infantry now are our nurses and doctors, putting themselves in the line of fire every day in the knowledge that some of them will not make it through.

The cavalry are our scientists and researchers, desperately seeking to understand this new and inert common foe so that they can provide vaccines and treatments.

The artillery are our long-distance truck-drivers traversing continents with essential supplies, our stay-at-home parents compelled to embark on an often considered but never tried experiment in homeschooling, our postal workers, bin collectors, electricity supply staff and internet service providers, all working hard to keep some of the cogs of normality for those of us getting used to all this unexpected time at home.

And yes, credit must go to our politicians too, who are for the most part, and maybe for the first time ever, removed from the cloak-and-dagger performance of politicking and forced to get on with the core task of leadership under fire and decision-making under strain.

Normality as we knew it

Many of us will be yearning for a quick return to normal, but it’s likely that what we knew as normal might never be that way again.

Whether this pandemic is the situation that threatens our species existence, or a prep run for some similar challenge in the future, it has quickly become clear that the greatest tests facing humanity as a collective over the rest of the 21st century will require global togetherness as the primary prerequisite.

In the face of a rapidly moving virus, where we can see the fall-out in China and Iran and Italy and can imagine ourselves perhaps a couple of weeks behind that contagion, it is still difficult to change behaviours. How can we expect to change the behaviours necessary to slow down climate disaster if the worst of that is 10 or 20 or 50 years away?

We can’t.

Not without an emergency response, at a global level.

The coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic will cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of lives, and those lost lives should in time be remembered as martyrs in the cause of human survival and the survival of Planet Earth.

It could be seen as a gift that allows a great majority of humanity to slow down, inhale the extravagant and miraculous elixir of air through our nostrils, and be thankful that if we do the right thing now, we still might have enough of everything we need.

Enough food for all.

Enough time to do what we need to do.

Enough urgency to make it all happen, sooner rather than later.

Enough ingenuity to overcome any challenge, no matter how hard the task can look and no matter how many vested interests are lined up in opposition.

Normality as we knew it created the perfect environment for contagion to spread to all corners of the world.

The next normality will look different.

There is at least a chance that whatever normality is to come will allow the only habitable planet we’ve got to continue to offer up its treasures for us, and for our kids, and for their kids and their kids’ kids, all the years of their lives.

The sycamore will bloom again next year. I pray that I’m here and healthy to wake up to its beauty.