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Getting back to normal — Is it even possible?

The world has changed dramatically in less than a year. Shrikant Peters looks beyond the immediate health crisis and examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on every aspect of one’s socio-economic, political, and personal life. Unless we build more robust solutions, he says, our current global systems leave little room for pursuit of the common good and will result in the increased isolation of marginalized communities.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that history will remember 2020 as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Never has the modern world seen such overwhelming and all-consuming disruptions to its socio-economic functioning. Many countries are now experiencing secondary peaks in infections, while others are still struggling to come to terms with the initial shocks to health systems and the ensuing fallout.

Everyone is tired and wants to return to some semblance of normal living – but what will that look like in the coming months and years? What are the implications of ongoing peaks and troughs, and the threat of more novel pandemics arising?

How and when will this all end?

The great unknown, which we will only begin to comprehend in hindsight, is how this has irrevocably changed what we previously understood as normal life. All human interactions have changed drastically in a few short months. There are new norms in civil politeness – it is now inconceivable for anyone to hug anyone – whether we are long-lost friends or elderly family members. Most professional discourse will increasingly be conducted via electronic channels.

Even with a vaccine, guidelines will still emphasise caution, given that immunity may be timebound and viral mutations are not outside the realm of possibility.

It is hard to envisage how the ruling party or the economy will be able to weather another national lockdown.

Even now, Europe and the United Kingdom are experiencing secondary peaks of infections, quarantining, hospital admissions and deaths. Were the same to happen in South Africa with municipal elections taking place in 2021, it is hard to envisage how the ruling party or the economy will be able to weather another national lockdown.

The second time around, if a secondary wave of infections occurs, will undoubtedly be more difficult for policy-makers, healthcare systems and the warning-weary general public. The thought of enduring another year similar to 2020 elicits despair from all quarters.

The unseen fallout

In addition to the direct effects that the first wave of COVID-19 infections has had on public health, it has left in its wake a multitude of other problems that are proving difficult to solve.

There are massive backlogs due to the temporary suspension of other clinical activities, including time-dependent surgical operations for cancers, disabling injuries and painful conditions. This has caused untold suffering for the patients awaiting care, and considerable anxiety for the providers who have been disallowed from providing it.

On a larger scale, disruption in economic markets will have long-lasting effects on people’s lives – increasing unemployment, decimating opportunities for improving living conditions and reversing what development the democratic South African government has managed to achieve.

Ongoing economic uncertainty will lead to lower investment, less growth, a worsening recession, increasing government debt and ballooning unemployment.

The fundamental changes to the ways in which we interact with each other may indeed become permanent.

Over the long term, the economic fallout may give rise to a longer lasting epidemic of social isolation. The fundamental changes to the ways in which we interact with each other may indeed become permanent. We will be challenged to maintain our sense of connection and trust while trying to re-build our personal and economic relationships.

Building stronger systems for public health

The fundamentals of good management have been emphasised in the context of fear and uncertainty in which we have found ourselves during this year. Strong leaders in the past may have been able to galvanise and inspire workers and citizens to persevere in the moment despite all odds. However, lasting and sustainable system-wide improvements require the work of strong teams and decentralised leadership structures.

This will be a difficult balancing act, as the threat of public health emergencies generally calls for stronger mandates and the use of authoritarian power by nanny state governments. How recent waves of left- and right-wing populism will clash with growing government authoritarianism remains to be seen, but this does not augur well for the building of governance systems based on trust and transparency.

However, lasting and sustainable system-wide improvements require … decentralised leadership structures.

Stemming from this experience, there will most certainly be a call for stronger government mandates to enact isolationist and protectionist policies to safeguard their citizens. Amid a general trend in growing anti-immigration and xenophobia, this is also bad news.

Despite this, a positive development is the reclaiming of health as the basis for social wellbeing, economic growth and human development. As an internationally ubiquitous pandemic, COVID-19 has been the great leveler of playing fields.

The hyper-connected nature of well-resourced world markets and peoples have led to catastrophic levels of infections in the Global North. The adherence to revered personal freedoms (such as an aversion to compulsory mask wearing) rather than responsibility to self and community has left these developed nations on the back foot.

Indeed, it is finally time to ask and hear what the Global South can teach its more developed northern neighbours, especially in terms of public health. Allowing the south a greater say in combatting diseases that primarily afflict its populations can only benefit in strengthening international organization’s responses to health and socio-economic crises. The Global South must be able to set policy agendas that can ensure the attainment of self-sufficiency.

Will the world’s new normal be for the better or for the worse? This depends on our approach; the principles we decide upon; how we juxtapose social and individual wellbeing; and the importance we give to diversity of thought and opinion at a global level.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.