Clodagh Finn: Life after lockdown — the worst thing we can do is return to ‘normal’

As Covid-19 restrictions are gradually lifted, we now have a choice between falling back into our old habits or reinventing our world
Clodagh Finn: Life after lockdown — the worst thing we can do is return to ‘normal’

Masked-up policemen in Seattle in 1918 during the 'Spanish flu' influenza epidemic which claimed millions of lives worldwide. Picture: Time Life Pictures/National Archives/Getty Images

Before I could say “hello haircut”, I missed the turn-off and found myself funnelled into the fast lane, then swept into the middle of motorway traffic which was hurtling at speed away from the hairdresser and my first appointment in five months.

Hello new post-lockdown freedoms, indeed. They weren’t even a day old and I was already lost, late, and completely thrown.

But then, nobody said it would be easy to emerge, blinking and dazed, from a slow, local bubble into a now-unfamiliar world that is designed for speed.

The phenomenon of “re-entry anxiety” has been well-described as people in jurisdictions ahead of us report the difficulties of readjusting to the accelerated pace of life after lockdown.

Fear of going out

There is even a new acronym to describe it: FOGO (fear of going out) as opposed to FOMO (fear of missing out) that apparently dogged us when our movements were so restricted.

It makes sense. You can’t suddenly shift into mix-and-mingle gear after spending months at a desk in the box room. We have forgotten how to socialise. Or at least some of us have.

And that is only the tip of the psychological iceberg. We are going to need some time to make sense of what has happened over the last 15 months — the loss of life, the loss of businesses and jobs, the health implications of Covid, the persistence of long Covid, and much more.

Headlong rush back to 'normality' 

The reluctance to return to normal life is understandable but, ironically, so too is its polar opposite — the urge to rush headlong into the fray again. How joyful to see so many Spaniards dance jubilantly on the streets earlier this week when that country’s six-month Covid curfew ended.

So where does that leave us?

Are we to expect a stuttering, skittish return to normality or a collective move to transform the decade into some kind of Roaring ‘20s reminiscent of the decadence, excess and invigorating flapper energy that followed the end of the First World War and the influenza pandemic in 1918-9?

We might, in fact, see a little bit of both.

American historian and author of The Great Influenza, John M Barry, for instance, predicts a post-pandemic economic boom, but with less of the excess of the 1920s.

He says people have been penned-up for more than a year and they are now likely to spend money and celebrate, but without the wildness, sense of fatalism, or survivor’s guilt that followed the Spanish flu which killed up to 50m people worldwide.

Boom or bloom

Many predict a boom of some kind or, in its absence, a new drive to become more forward-looking, innovative, and inventive.

Time will tell. It is, after all, a mug’s game to try to predict the future. What has been surprising, though, is how little we have looked to the past. It has so much to tell us about post-pandemic life, yet we have been slow in seeking out those lessons.

“And there are so many lessons," says Ida Milne, historian and author of Stacking the Coffins, a fascinating and illuminating social history of the 1918 influenza pandemic that is of particular relevance now.

So much so, in fact, that Milne is sorry she didn’t present copies to the Taoiseach and the health minister because so much of what happened — or didn’t happen — a century ago can tell us how best to proceed now.

The biggest mistake we can make, she says, is to forget or to let the memory fizzle out, as so often happens when a society emerges from a pandemic. The Ireland of 1919 was very quick to move on after Spanish flu claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people here.

Contrasts with 1918 pandemic

As now, the crisis highlighted the urgent need for healthcare reform but that was quickly shelved, partly because the country was about to enter a full-blown revolution and civil war.

Also, death and disease were daily realities. As Milne explains, about 15% of all annual deaths were from infectious disease, with tuberculosis, pneumonia, and bronchitis being the biggest killers.

Death in the influenza pandemic was not unusual in the health context of the time, so there was no great celebration when it finally passed. Look back through the pages of Irish history and you won’t find flappers or wanton excess, just fear and a lack of confidence after an epidemic which then, as now, cast an all-seeing searchlight over society and found it sadly wanting.

Epidemics shape our assumptions

As Milne puts it: “Major epidemic disease events test, support, undermine, or reshape social, political and medical assumptions.”

Covid-19 has certainly tested all of our assumptions, social, political and medical — but some have been more eager to reshape society than others.

For instance, Milne has been heartened by interest among health professionals who are willing to look to the past and learn from it, because one of the biggest challenges we face now is to change what is wrong with our health system.

She is not alone in pointing out that the pandemic exposed our reliance on women to carry the can for healthcare, both formally — health workers are predominantly female — and in the domestic sphere, where they are often the ones caring for children and the elderly.

Earlier this year, Covid Women’s Voices warned that women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The campaign highlighted not just the burden imposed by Covid, but gender imbalance in leadership roles and the lack of visible women in decision-making at all levels.

Covid exposed cracks in society 

As we embrace our newfound freedoms this week, there will be an understandable desire to think that the crisis is past, but it is not. If anything, we are facing several crises because the pandemic has laid bare the myriad cracks in our society and shown how they affect the lives of so many.

We have seen that across every single area from healthcare and housing to violence in the home and the need to tackle climate change.

On an aside, is it not time to rename “domestic violence”? The surge in the number of vicious attacks taking place behind closed doors is somehow minimised by the cosy word “domestic”. If we renamed it, say, “brutality in the home”, would there be a more urgent response?

Sustainable change

Speaking of urgent responses, history also tells us that, post-pandemic, political leaders typically face more pressure from the electorate to take action. Now, more than ever, is the time to ensure that public policy fits our lockdown hopes of living greener, more sustainable lives.

Change, of course, starts at home, which brings me back to my own traffic-snarled hairdresser odyssey. I did get there in the end but with a prodding conscience that asked what the hell I was doing falling back into bad old habits and making a local journey in a car.

That insistent voice also said this: The very worst thing we can do right now is to return to our flawed version of “normal”.

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