Our lives have changed dramatically in the past few weeks. All of a sudden, businesses have been closed, people are advised to work from home, children are required to attend online classes, streets are almost empty, and our daily activities disrupted. We are all anxious with all that has been happening across the globe, and we can’t help but wonder, “when are things going back to normal?”. “Normal” is the word we often use to describe our lives pre-coronavirus, the things that we used to enjoy, the places we used to visit, and the lifestyles we used to have.
But with the recent development of coronavirus and our situation far from going back to normal, the legislation of the “New Normal” bill has been all over the news. This has got me thinking for a few days now, “who gets to decide what is normal and what is not?” It’s almost 4 am now and I don’t have an answer to this. I am writing this post as I find myself troubled by the word normal.
When we say normal, our common assumption would be that this concept must have existed since time immemorial. After all, we always have the innate behavior of comparing ourselves to others or to what our society considers “normal.” From infancy to adulthood, we are constantly checking our child’s development whether it is normal or not. As adults, we are obsessed with the thought of achieving normal weight, height, cholesterol level, blood pressure, etc. As Lennard Davis (2013) puts it, we all endeavor to be normal by considering what an average person does, thinks, earns, or consumes. We try to confine ourselves within the parameters of normalcy as dictated by society.
But before we try to imagine a world with our “New Normal”, let us recognize that our ideas of “normal” have a long history of terror and injustices, socially constructed to “eliminate” and exclude certain groups of people around the world. Ideas of “normal” and “abnormal” only emerged in the 19th century. It became the desired category that set the characteristics and virtues of a white male as the standard, but framing women, people of color, homosexuals, immigrants among other minority groups as abnormal, referring to their differences as a result of hereditary flaws (Davis, 2013; Baynton, 2013). These people are perceived to be “undesirable” members of the community and considered deviants to the norm.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, we see people who occupy low-skilled jobs as less dignified human beings. We’ve been used to treating human dignity with relative value, judging a person’s worth based on the individual’s perceived contribution to the economy. Thus, we tend to think lowly of the farmers, fishers, vendors, garbage collectors, fast food workers, and other blue-collar jobs. But with this pandemic, we have learned to pay utmost respect to them and admire the work that they do, even referring to them as our modern-day heroes along with the medical practitioners and peacekeepers.
Peter Baker (2020) wrote at the beginning of his article in the Guardian, “Times of upheaval are always times of radical change. Some believe the pandemic is a once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future. Others fear it may only make existing injustices worse.” I am banking on the former and hoping that this pandemic will remake our society for the better. I am finding hope in the acts of kindness and stories of bayanihan, people coming together to help those who are in need, farmers sharing their produce, fishers giving their catch, celebrities and businesses sharing their resources, neighbors trying to uplift each other, and even children motivating and thanking our front liners.
We have also seen drastic changes in just a matter of weeks, what we think is impossible have actually been done. Governments are doing their best to extend help to those who are greatly affected, maximizing their resources, responding to the people’s call, and people coming together in solidarity. All of these happening in just a matter of weeks. We could do more when all of this is over.
I am hoping that with this “New Normal,” we will not make the same mistake of excluding certain groups of people, especially the most vulnerable. I hope that we consider that our population is not homogenous and so are the problems we face and support we need. A few days ago, we heard of the shooting of a mentally ill individual at the checkpoint. People with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable populations who often fall through the cracks, especially here in the Philippines. We are still stuck with the idea of PWDs as the problems needed to be fixed or rehabilitated instead of our society’s lack of awareness and capability to cater to different people with different needs. We need to stop viewing PWDs as subjects of tragedy, neglect, and pity. Instead of fixing people to conform to societal norms and homogenizing the population, perhaps, we could try to be more accommodating and inclusive as a society.
When we try to homogenize society and only consider the majority, often, the good intentions and impacts of our actions don’t match. For instance, telemedicine and online schools. While this helps curb the spread of the virus, this may also put others at a great disadvantage, especially the poor students and patients who lack access to technology. As one of my professors says, we should learn to expand the range of ways we can think about “problems” so that we can multiply possible solutions. Let us always remember that in every suggestion we have, we should ask ourselves, “who is foregrounded and who is missing in the picture?”. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead of thinking of these populations as the “problems”, we should actively engage with them and work from the bottom up.
Who knows a lot of good things will come out of this pandemic like maybe a better healthcare system, a sustainable food security plan, a more equitable and inclusive education, and improved labor rights? This is what I’m hoping our New Normal would look like.
*Originally written as a Facebook post on April 25, 2020.
Deanna Joyce Neri graduated from the University of the Philippines Mindanao. Currently, she is a graduate student at the University of Alberta.
Baker, P. (2020, March 31). ‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/31/how-will-the-world-emerge-from-the-coronavirus-crisis
Baynton, D.C. (2013). Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History. In L.J Davis (Ed.,The disability studies reader. 4th ed. New York, NY: Routledge.
Davis, L.J. (2013). Normality, Power, and Culture. In L.J Davis (Ed.), The disability studies reader. 4th ed. New York, NY: Routledge.