Why we should think beyond “returning to normal”

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly everyone on the globe, bringing with it a great deal of suffering and significant changes in the way people work and live. Despite the initially dismal US response to the pandemic, we are now among the most vaccinated countries on earth. All across the country, restrictions are relaxing, masks are coming off, travel is resuming, and people have begun returning to normal.

Unfortunately, “normal” in the US is a dire situation to begin with.

As bad as COVID was, it also brought with it several silver linings. The scope and horror of the situation forced us, for the briefest moment, to prioritize something other than profit. The rich weren’t immune to COVID-19. A far-right Republican government temporarily instituted an eviction moratorium and student debt relief, issued stimulus checks, and expanded unemployment benefits. Some essential employees received pay increases. Those who were able worked remotely, reconnecting with their families, clearing up the roads, and allowing nature some respite from our constant hustle.

For a while, it seemed like some of these changes might become permanent. Pundits and politicians seriously discussed universal basic income and student debt forgiveness. As we realized society is only as healthy as the least-healthy among us, the need for a Medicare-for-All system became apparent. Businesses explored more flexible work models, and some made work-from-home permanent.

Now, there is no “new normal.” Instead, we are rushing back to the old normal as quickly as possible.

The eviction moratorium ends in July and student loan collections are set to resume October 1. This comes at a time when half a million Americans are homeless, 17 million housing units sit empty, and big corporations are buying large swaths of real estate. When COVID was responsible for Americans’ financial shortages, the government took some action. When predatory business practices are the cause, it’s considered normal.

COVID-era unemployment benefits are also set to expire in September. Low-paying jobs, including major chain retailers and fast-food restaurants, are currently experiencing significant staffing shortages. One reason, economists hypothesize, is that workers are disincentivized by $300 weekly unemployment benefits. It says a lot about the American work culture that the work available is both so undignified and so low-paying that $300 a week is all it takes to keep people at home. But bad jobs, low wages, and living on the edge are all normal in America.

The quality-of-life improvements of remote work are enormous: more comfort, less stress, no commute, less exposure to office pathogens, more control over one’s life and time, and in many cases, more efficient, streamlined processes, free from office distractions. Meanwhile, the company can pay less in overhead, sell off or rent out some of its space, and enjoy higher employee morale. We could greatly reduce our carbon emissions with fewer cars stuck in rush hour and less power to large office buildings.

Yet workers are returning to the office, driven largely by wealthy CEOs like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, whose lack of concern for human quality of life has been apparent. Dimon has said, “People don’t like commuting, but so what?” and that work-from-home “doesn’t work for people who want to hustle, doesn’t work for culture, doesn’t work for idea generation.” Managers obsessed with culture-building, who treat their jobs as religions and want everyone else to do the same, will force the workforce back out onto the roads and into cramped, gray cubicles — another disastrous return to the old normal.

Access to healthcare remained an issue for tens of millions of Americans all throughout the pandemic. Many Americans received staggering medical bills for their COVID treatments. Interestingly, though, despite decades of right-wing propaganda against government involvement in healthcare, few people questioned the government’s responsibility to step in and provide at least some help. The government poured billions of dollars into fast-paced vaccine research, and the vaccine is now available for free to all Americans.

This set a potentially dangerous precedent. People saw that our collective resources can be used to benefit everyone. We can have some nice things. Perhaps this also partly explains the push for returning to normal. The day-to-day horror Americans have lived with for generations — on the brink of eviction, unable to afford basic medical care, lives swallowed whole with debts and work — is precisely the way certain powerful forces want us to live. They rely on our fear that more work is the only way to relieve our suffering.

We got vaccinated and pulled through a global tragedy only to restart the rat race. Any silver linings that COVID brought to the horizon are being neatly folded back. COVID forced us, at least temporarily, to ease up on some of the pressures of American life. The question now is why we would ever want to reapply those pressures. Who do they benefit? Instead, we could reorient our priorities around the very things that got us out of the pandemic — debt relief, increased pay and benefits for workers, and government-funded healthcare.

Our reunions with family and friends are cause for hearty celebration. But if we just go back to the old normal, we will have squandered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make large, lasting improvements to American life. That will be the real heartbreak of COVID: to have learned nothing, and to be caught unprepared once again when the next tragedy stresses our precarious system to the breaking point.