“I’ve never seen anything like this” is a phrase you may have heard multiple times over the past few weeks. The coronavirus pandemic has turned economies and health-care systems upside down, and has separated people from their daily routines, workplaces, and loved ones. It has disrupted modern society to an extent that few have ever witnessed, in such a short space of time.
Remember February? The good old days when we all attended gatherings and shook hands; When you could easily book a flight or travel across town to visit friends; When a face mask was a beauty treatment. It seems like a lifetime ago that we were all enjoying the freedoms we had become accustomed to. Then suddenly, our lives changed, and we weren’t prepared, mentally or emotionally. Until very recently, we may not have appreciated just how lucky we were: what we thought was normal is no longer.
Only a few months ago, nobody knew that Covid-19 existed. Since then, the whole world has entered into what might be called a ‘liminal phase,’ or an in-between zone; a stage of disorientation, where the order of things has become suspended and a process of rearrangement begins. All around us, changes that used to take years are being compressed into months or even weeks. It’s an unsettling time, in which each of us has to navigate through a storm, without a map, all the while hoping that it will soon pass.
What’s the best way to deal with this situation? And what might the world look like in the coming months? Fortunately, when a storm begins to subside, the dust is cleaned from the rain-swept air, and the view becomes sharper and clearer.
In an interview in the French magazine La Cohorte last year, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke about looking ahead to the future, saying, “the most important thing is to be able to predict change such that a community’s institutions can start anticipating and preparing themselves. And it's a very complex job, but it's fascinating and if it's well managed will produce excellent results.”
“I try to ensure that our institutions look to the future. Because in the end, anticipating is necessary in life, whether you are dirt poor or fabulously rich. You need to be able to anticipate intelligently,” he went on to say.
Although the world may not go back to how it was before, this gives us the agency to shape what the future might look like, for ourselves and our families. As such, this is the ideal time to make decisions that could influence the months ahead. The current crisis will pass, but by anticipating trends and preparing well, the choices we make now can improve the quality of our lives for many years to come.
As we continue to witness through our glowing screens, the coronavirus pandemic is directly affecting every person on Earth, changing the essential nature of everyday life, and creating a ‘new normal.’ Every morning seems to bring unprecedented breaking news of pain and loss, offering a reminder that we should never take anything for granted.
Emergencies are often moments when things become worse, and people become more fearful, suspicious, and self-centred. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Even in the midst of suffering and grief, a disaster can shed light on the human capacity for improvisation, solidarity, resolve, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose, as we are reminded just how precious and fragile life actually is.
In times like this, when businesses become insolvent and governments are otherwise occupied, the crucial role of civil society becomes even more apparent. Rather than being part of the problem to be managed, people and communities can become an integral part of the solution to crises. Individualism is of little use when faced with a collective threat. Right now, we can either leave it to others to determine what the future looks like, or together, we can take things into our own hands.
For a start, we can begin to regard our common humanity as a strength, regardless of differences in background. The Sars-Cov-2 virus has no interest in people’s ethnicity, language, gender, or status; only in the fact that we are human, which reminds us that across the globe, we are all in this together. Ironically, disconnecting physically has made us realise again how emotionally and spiritually connected we really are.
Many of the recent changes to everyday life have come about very rapidly, aided by technology. Some of these are due to circumstance, like children being home-schooled and adults working from home. Some are undesirable, such as the loss of incomes, the spreading of fake news and scams, and the negative effects on mental health.
Other changes have actually been positive. Washing hands and personal hygiene have become priorities, healthcare heroes are being celebrated, parents and children are spending more time with each other, and checkout staff and delivery drivers are now regarded as essential workers. Communities are coming together, even while staying physically apart, and vulnerable members are being cared for as a priority.
Take a look outside: birds are everywhere. While planes are grounded, cars are still, and people are stuck indoors, inquisitive wild animals are venturing into empty city streets. Carbon emissions are at their lowest for years, and with less air pollution, the stars are more visible in the night sky. We have seen that rapid and large-scale change is indeed possible.
As individuals and communities, we can learn from these recent positive developments, and keep them going even when lockdowns are lifted. If we can do so, then family and friends will be more appreciated, diversity will be better understood, and positive values will be shared more widely. People will have a greater awareness of public health and the common good, and tomorrow’s young children might even proclaim: “When I grow up, I’m going to be an epidemiologist.”
The world now finds itself at a crossroads. What happens next may depend on our ability to leave aside the undesirable developments when we emerge from this situation, and instead bring with us the positives. The choice we face involves going back to how things were before, with old ways of doing things, returning to prejudice and materialism, and not caring for the planet.
Instead, during this in-between period, we might try to anticipate intelligently, and reposition our outlook to become more humble, more grateful, and more in tune with the natural world. As Mawlana Hazar Imam stated in his message to the worldwide Jamat on 28 March, “We must remain strong and prepare to build, and to build well, when this crisis passes.”
And so, when this crisis does eventually pass, what will the ‘new normal’ look like?
As members of a globally connected community, it’s up to each one of us to decide.