A Better Normal?

by | Culture | 3 comments

After 10 long weeks working from home, one of my work trips has finally avoided the now customary last-minute cancellation and I’ve made it across the North Sea to the Netherlands. Straight out of lockdown into 14 days of quarantine in a Rotterdam hotel room. I’m now faced with the prospect of two weeks in not-so-splendid isolation: 23 hours a day confined to my room with a solitary hour outside where I have to remain at least 2 metres away from any living soul.

To be fair the kitchen staff have tried their best to break the tedium; three meals are deposited to the door every day and I’m able to while away a good half an hour each time trying to figure out what the hell it’s supposed to be before deciding that I’m probably not going to eat it anyway.

The buildup to the trip was as fraught as you’d imagine in these crazy times. My every movement has been risk-assessed, documented and monitored to the point I’m still sanitising my hands in the hotel room for fear of Dutch Special Forces abseiling in through the plate glass window for a random sample.

In all seriousness, after months at home in the lockdown bubble, being out in the world has reminded me how utterly surreal it is at the moment.

My flight to Amsterdam was one of only two departing from Edinburgh Airport that day. The departure lounge was almost deserted, facilities stripped to the absolute minimum – a single vending machine dispensing bottled water was the only concession to normality apart from the KLM staff frantically trying to plot their way out of yet another oversold flight.

As for us passengers, we awkwardly hung around the gate in our masks, everyone doing their utmost to ensure their two meter exclusion zone remained intact. No enforcement was needed, seats were left empty with people choosing to take refuge an any available corner. No one seemed keen on breaking the hush which hung over the place, which only added to the eeriness. I guessed the majority of us fitted into two categories: those like myself travelling for work and those using Amsterdam as a staging post for longer journeys home. No weekend tokers or couples ready to enjoy a nice city break here; we were all there by necessity. 

The sense of the unreal carried over to the flight. There was no trolley service, no food or drink was offered and customary small talk between neighbours was definitely off the menu. The smallest of coughs was met with uneasy shuffling. No one wanted to be there.

The quiet of the flight allowed some time for reflection. As we waited for our cue to push away from the terminal, my thoughts turned to what our new normal might look like – a topic that’s taken up a lot of my time recently.

In the absence of the all-consuming daily grind, many of us have used the free headspace to take stock, to filter the daily noise from the important stuff. I’m certain I don’t want things to go back to the old normal: no more energy sapping commutes when I can work remotely; no more prioritising tasks over people, no more coveting things rather than wellbeing.

These thoughts of discontent have only been exacerbated by the actions of our leaders since the virus took hold.

How can we still believe in these politicians? Those who appeal to our sense of civic responsibility while flouting their own rules, then sneer at us for having the temerity to point out their hypocrisy.

How can we believe in a system that asks people to beg for their own tax money to be returned so they can keep food on their table? And to then accuse those same hard working families of being addicted to handouts within a few weeks?

How could you not completely lose faith in the old normal?

I’m sure others can see the possibility of a better normal rathe than simply reverting to type. We not aim for a fairer, more balanced existence that prioritises the needs of the individual? A life where we measure success by our wellbeing rather than how much money we have in the bank.

As these thoughts of change swirled through my head I had barely realised we were airborne. As I settled back for the short flight I resolved that I‘d make the changes and I’d stick to them, and not let the impending grind force me back into old habits.

Just at that, one of the stewardesses moved to the row in front of where I sat and pulled the flimsy blue curtain separating the business and economy seats firmly shut.

This was, without doubt, the most egalitarian flight I’ve ever been on. There was absolutely nothing to differentiate each of us from the other. There we sat in our identical masks in the forlorn hope of staving off the invisible enemy, the packed compartment a seas of faces with the same expression of grim determination. It was impossible to tell the teacher from the doctor from the musician from the lawyer. We were communised by our joint purpose.

Most of the folks in business had only been shifted there as a result of the overbooking. They weren’t even treated to as much as a complimentary hot towel.

And yet, protocol dictated that a distinction had to be made; us and them.

The virus may have exposed the Wizards of Oz pulling the levers of our society and opened our eyes to the possibilities of a better normal, but remember some would very much like to keep those curtains drawn. If we want the new normal to be a better normal we’re going to have to fight for it.

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