Pandemic and the new normal

According to the Head of the Infectious Disease Clinic, University of Maryland, USA, “We may have to live with C19 for months or years. Let’s not deny it or panic. Let’s not make our lives useless. Let’s learn to live with this fact. Adds he,“You can’t destroy C19 viruses that have penetrated cell walls, drinking gallons of hot water – you’ll just go to the bathroom more often. Washing hands and maintaining a two-metre physical distance is the best method for your protection. If you don’t have a C19 patient at home, there’s no need to disinfect the surfaces at your house. Packaged cargo, gas pumps, shopping carts and ATMs do not cause infection.”

“Wash your hands, live your life as usual. C19 is not a food infection. It is associated with drops of infection like the ‘flu. There is no demonstrated risk that C19 is transmitted by ordering food. You can lose your sense of smell with a lot of allergies and viral infections. This is only a non-specific symptom of C19. Once at home, you don’t need to change your clothes urgently and go to shower! Purity is a virtue, paranoia is not,” he advises.

Well, that is very correct and true in the environment of the USA, where standards of cleanliness and other facility systems are of exceptionally high order, and there is no chaotic crowding, as we have in India. Here, we have to be much more careful even though a lot of what has been said by the Maryland doctor is relevant to our situation as well. As the virus is settling down like other viruses,  cholera, smallpox and polio we have had to battle with in the past, there is a greater chance of survival for those getting infected now than those who got infected 3 months earlier. The reason for this is that doctors and scientists know more about Covid-19 now than 3 months ago and hence are able to treat patients better. Let us, therefore, continue to follow precautions, but let us not be unreasonably paranoid. We must, however, admit and reconcile to the emergent situation that things would not be the same again. Living with this kind of virus means affecting some permanent life-style changes and living in accordance with what is now called “the new normal”.

But what exactly is the new normal? How, and in what manner will the corona virus pandemic shape our work life, impact social life, and most importantly, how do we embrace this change. In a virtual town hall, many a senior leader contributed their thoughts on the implications of the current scenario. “The new normal is going to be different from what we have been used to. The current situation is difficult and there are various theories about how quickly things will recover.” said one. “The safety of our employees has been our top priority and will continue to be so, along with business continuity. We moved, quickly and effectively, to the new Work From Home protocol, setting up a Group-level Rapid Action Force (RAF) to manage the lockdown challenges. We are connected with all our employees through various technology-driven platforms. The process of returning to work is an extremely well-calibrated protocol that we have prepared and request you to adhere to. When we go back to work, we have made sure we will observe all the prescribed social distancing norms. Offices will have to be redesigned for this purpose and about half of our employees will have to continue working from home,” was another input. Another participant opined that “we started work-from-home from march 18, and 20,000 employees are now working from home with 360,000 virtual meetings having already been conducted. As many as 80 live events have been organized which witnessed participation ranging between 200-500 people. Several board meetings have also happened virtually.“We are taking a lot of preventative maintenance and safety measures at our manufacturing plants, while gradually transiting to active mode. There are four initiatives I would like to share with you. Our kitchens have become more active with 17 of them working to provide food for migrant labourers since the lockdown began. For those with no place to cook, we are giving them cooked food while for others who can cook, we are providing dry rations. About 9,000+ people are being fed every day and 2.9 lakh food packets have been distributed to date.”

Another leader revealed that  “from Ford, we learned to manufacture face shields, and after working non-stop for 4 days along with a supplier we were making them at our Kandivali plant. Today 8 locations are making them and 11,000+ face shields are being manufactured daily. We have supplied them to several locations across the country from Jammu & Kashmir to Kerala. About 300,000 face shields have already been delivered. A small start-up called Saral Designs approached us saying they have the capability to make face masks but they needed support to upgrade their machines. Within 4 hours we reached out to them and suggested we help with manufacturing the masks. In the middle of the night their machines were shifted to our units and on the 5th day of the lockdown we started making masks. And today we have made 30,000 hi-grade, 3-ply masks, which have already been distributed. About 600 Aerosol boxes have also been provided to 30 hospitals, through knowledge sharing with our US teams.”

The Government of India has been laying greater thrust on the use of technology during the lockdown. Video conferencing has become the norm and so far, millions of sessions have been held among the industry bodies, businesses, etc., across the country, and abroad. The government has itself been using tools like Twitter extensively to reach out to citizens and has become more transparent. Newer applications such as ArogyaSetu have been introduced. The government is putting together the second stimulus to get the economy back on track. The states have also become proactive and are doing a commendable job “virtually”.  During this phase, the renegotiation of contracts will be a key concern area. Data security on the internet is another concern and efforts are underway to ascertain if proprietary data is being used by others. Efforts have intensified to secure the personal data of employees, customers, etc. Concerns regarding governance issues in the wake of Covid-19 have increased.

In Finance and Accounting, physical verification and documentation is critical. It seemed impossible to manage it virtually. To add to the woes, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India has made the conditions more stringent. To meet the challenges posed by the lockdown, the institute called for more tests and verifications, and greater vigilance.

The new normal is not going to be Netflix, Hotstar, and Amazon, instead we will be desperate for the new “abnormal” which will be, in many ways, a longing for the old normal – namely travel, holidays, movies, outings, etc. This framing is inviting: it contends that things will never be the same as they were before — so welcome to a new world order. By using this language, we re-imagine where we were previously relative to where we are now, appropriating our present as the standard.

We find ourselves in this surreal situation where there has been economic devastation and yet there is no destruction of infrastructure or habitat. We suffer physical isolation but are engaged in hyper digital communication. Organizations need to be better prepared for greater resilience, both financial as well as with their supply chains. The language of a ‘new normal’ is being deployed almost as a way to quell any uncertainty ushered in by the pandemic. With no cure in sight, everyone, from politicians and the media to friends and family has perpetuated this rhetoric as they imagine settling into life under this ‘new normal’.

As we weigh our personal and political responses to this pandemic, the language we employ matters. It helps to shape and reinforce our understanding of the world and the ways in which we choose to approach it. The analytic frame embodied by the persistent discussion of the ‘new normal’ helps bring order to our current turbulence, but it should not be the lens through which we examine today’s crisis. Far from describing the status quo, invoking the ‘new normal’ does not allow us to deal with the totality of our present reality. It first impedes personal psychological wellbeing, then ignores the fact that ‘normal’ is not working for a majority of society.

Bhushan Lal Razdan retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh. Razdan is an environmentalist to the core and is a plantation enthusiast.