A Neoteric New Normal

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Patricia Pereira-Sethi

The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly be the defining moment of our generation and of our lives. Pundits have been sifting through history to draw parallels to other momentous events on record,  astrologers are juxta-positioning the stars to seek the way forward, and all and sundry have been involved in predicting what the strange future and the ensuing economic order will look like after the virus has been smothered into silence. There is little doubt that the landscape will be vastly different from what we have been accustomed to in the past.

The conjecturing involved is rather forbidding. Before fast-track testing with instantaneous results is realised, before a fool-proof vaccine is discovered or an effective treatment is found, thousands of stores and companies will disappear. In their place new concepts will emerge, revolving around technology-based sales and structures. Many small colleges and private schools will close permanently because children will study at home and online. And since people will be forced to alter their patterns of behaviour with social distancing, most business and vacation trips will nose-dive. According to the New York Times, Airbnb’s chief executive Brian Chesky wept as he informed his employees via web-cam from his San Francisco home that the coronavirus had crushed the travel industry and the rental start-up.  Within days, 19,000 Airbnb staffers lost their jobs.

Extravagant weddings will grind to a halt; destination nuptials will become phantoms of the past. Other celebratory events, including christenings, birthdays and anniversaries, will be limited to a miniscule coterie of friends and relatives. (A welcome scenario for the healing of our Mother Earth and the long suffering citizenry which has had to endure endless late-night parties with ear-splitting music and wasteful and pointless pyrotechnics). Large swaths of cruise-ships and theme-park industries will fold, as will many movie theatres and sports stadiums. Director Shekhar Kapur prophesises that the pandemic will signal the death of “the star system” and Bollywood’s 100-crore club. “Theatres are not going to open for at least a year. So all hype around the first week’s business of 100+ crores is dead…the theatrical Star System is dead. Stars will have to go to existing OTT platforms or stream films themselves through their own apps,” he wrote on his Twitter-handle. And filmmaker Anurag Kashyap adds that if and when the cinema halls will finally open, “there will be such a bottleneck of movies, there will be a struggle.”

According to analysts, malls will become untenable given the social distancing norms; the demise of the traditional department store is also on the cards. A planned Grand Opening of designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s bridal jewellery collection, in collaboration with the iconic Bergdorf Goodman store in New York, was cancelled earlier this year. The selection of ornate gems by couples planning their engagement had to be conducted from a pavement entrance instead of within the plush salons. Thousands of restaurants will soon be wiped out — to be replaced by newly styled eateries. Food will be served on the sidewalks, in the open air, by the sea. Customers will choose from pre-set menus fashioned in boxes with disposable cutlery and dinnerware, to be distributed by masked waiters. Hand sanitisers will be evident everywhere, with thermometer checks or thermal imaging cameras visible at each entrance. Virus screening will become an integral part of our life, just like security measures became ubiquitous after 9/11.

The catastrophe will breed necessary policy responses to contain its spread: it will be crucial for all governments to invest in the infrastructure necessary to detect and stamp out future viral outbreaks. There will be a review of several past theories and approaches: ranging from the future of capitalism, the densification of economic activity and urban development, industrial policy, and a call for global and collective action to deal with pandemics and climate change. An expanded digital network will be woven throughout the social and economic fabric, with the adoption and extension of remote working and learning, telemedicine, video-conferencing, fintech and home-delivery services. Other fundamental modifications will probably accelerate, including the regionalisation of supply chains and an explosion of cross-border data flows. Working from home will become routine: there will be the need to stagger work-hours so that offices and factories don’t become crowded and employees can safely maintain distancing. This in turn will cause a reduction of rush-hour traffic, with commuters no longer travelling to and from their jobs. Schemes to encourage people to walk or cycle to work, or use electric scooters, are already gaining traction in many European countries. Hence there will be no need for a plethora of cars or the hobbling dependence on gasoline, giving our hitherto abused and vilified planet time to breathe easy, as smog and pollution levels dissipate.

In most cities, life will become a pale penumbra of what it once used to be, with streets empty, theatres shut, arenas abandoned, businesses shuttered. The wealthy have already escaped to their underground bunkers or scrambled aboard private jets to country estates and island getaways. Those who have remained behind have fallen into a fractionalised existence — their movements curtailed, their social circles exponentially shrunk — anathema to the very purpose of living in a bustling, vibrant city. With companies downsizing, the demand for commercial real estate will decelerate and the skyscrapers that shape skylines from Manhattan to Mumbai will begin to look more like humungous white elephants rather than symbols of financial strength. For those who toil in their silhouettes, life will become bleak, as hundreds of millions will struggle on the precipice of an upcoming labour-market Armageddon, as disturbingly detailed by Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate in economics.

While being enormously disruptive and painful, the crisis has also nurtured common purpose, solidarity, creativity and improvisation. Social media has opened various windows, airing countless coping mechanisms; it has unlocked an inner creativity and resourcefulness that can be shared widely online. Many of us are now taking more time to cook, for example. Not just ordering in a fast-food meal, but actually enjoying the culinary process. Parents have become engaged in a number of arts and crafts projects, while home-schooling their children, leading to a greater bonding and intimacy within the family. Friends are also attempting to grow their own kitchen requirements on terraces and balconies, following the example of senior citizens Neeno Kaur and Peter Singh of Dona Paula. This remarkable power-couple has integrated a complete subsistence program onto 185 square meters of their greenhouse and rooftop garden, where they produce 120 kilograms of fish a year and grow 3,000 plants comprising vegetables and fruits. Assimilating aquaponics, aquaculture, hydroponics and permaculture, they are a striking example of how to become completely self-reliant, as well as resolve the garbage problem through a waste-recycling technique. A truly Make in Goa project in our own backyard!

The pandemic has thrust a tsunami on us, even more rapidly than we could ever imagine. The question is are we ready to confront it for the benefit and betterment of all humanity or should we dismiss this as nothing more than a doomsayer diagnosis?