I’ve been thinking a lot about how this current phase of the pandemic – and the one that follows – will change us. Unfortunately, I don’t think that we are close to returning to normal. We are instead, to borrow a Churchillian turn of phrase, reaching the end of the beginning. But what comes next?
A lot of people are referring to it as a “new normal”, which is a term I’m sure we’re already sick of (along with “flattening the curve”, PPE and “social distancing” – as well as certain leaders’ overuse of the word “tremendous”, but I digress …). But while what will follow will be “new”, I don’t think of it as “normal” at all. In fact, it seems to represent a reversal of what was, only 8 weeks ago, “normal.” That’s why I’ve taken to refer to this next moment as the “Upside Down” – a wink to an alternate universe, darker and more menacing, in the otherwise fun and escapist Netflix show “Stranger Things.” Yes, I’m being a bit glib, but the analogy is not as far fetched as you might think. What we’re about to experience is an upside-down version of the world we used to live in.
Let me start by the most obvious sign of the times. I don’t know that we’re ever going to get used to everyone wearing masks.
People will point out, correctly, that in Asia it’s considered a signal of civic duty to wear one. But Asian cultures – and the East in general – have millennia of Confucian teachings that lead them to be more communitarian compared to the more individualistic West. Their penchant for collective action is proving to be an asset during these chaotic times, while our sense of “exceptionalism” is blowing back in our faces right now. But I still don’t think that Western society will ever get used to veiled people all around us (as the pushbacks against burkas have suggested). As humans, we’ve evolved to be able to ascertain the threat level that people pose at a distance. Part of that is the size of the person, their posture and body language, but it’s primarily by looking at people’s faces that we determine whether they are familiar, friend or foe. That is impossible with a mask.
We are now being conditioned to think of people – all people – as threats and virus transmission vectors. It’s already happened. Take a look – as I did recently – at scenes of a busy boulevard teeming with people, like Fifth Avenue in NYC or Oxford Street in London. Did a shudder go up your spine involuntarily? It did for me – and that reflexive reaction shocked me. This is already changing the way we interact with strangers and crowds, and it’s only been 5 weeks. Imagine what months of this conditioning will do to our unconscious biases?
Today, the conscientious thing to do when crossing another person on the sidewalk is to give them as wide a berth as possible – the further, the better. Before, that would be a sign of fear or disrespect. Now, it’s an act of charity. The world has flipped upside down.
Prior to this moment, in LA (where I live now) you decided to go to a dinner | party | club based on whether it was worth the long drive. Now, the new cost-benefit analysis may not be the drive (which may, in fact, be a lot shorter!) but rather whether you think that person – and their friends – are either cool enough to risk contracting COVID-19 (a 21st-century version of the “Seinfeld” theme of “sponge worthiness”) or that you consider them responsible enough to have been practicing “safe physical distancing”. Forget the risky behavior of unprotected sex; with the evidence we’ve gathered of the impact of “super-spreader social events like weddings, parties, and conferences, we will have to decide whether it’s worth undertaking unprotected social engagements. That’s not normal.
Perhaps most mind-blowing of all, it may soon become an asset to have had the virus (not have, but “have had”). If, as experts predict, the only way back to normal is via the herd immunity (70% of the population has been infected and is now safe) or vaccine routes, we are 2 to 4 years away from partying like it’s 2019. But that won’t be true for everyone: people who have contracted the virus and overcome it will have VIP passes to the whole planet, a bit like buying those crazy expensive “Skip to the front of the line” tickets at Disney World. While everyone else sits in a queue behind a velvet rope, you get to roam the country with all of the COVID-19-cured “cool kids.”
Just as Elaine once accepted to sleep with Jerry and, in effect, “have sex to *save* the friendship” on a famous episode of “Seinfeld” (yes, I’m obsessed with that show), we are going to be entertaining the notion of intentionally contracting C-19 in order to get the newest form of “Global Entry” or TSA pre-check. We will want to get sick “to save our status” as it were.
Are we going to see C-19 “parties” the way parents a generation or two ago held smallpox parties, to purposely infect their children when it was safer to do so? If getting Coronavirus (and surviving) becomes the difference between being able to work and not, how many people will opt to roll the dice? Given the drumbeat to “open the country up” in certain states, this is a near-certainty in the not-too-distant future.
There was a joke making the rounds of Instagram a while ago that said that the key to being popular on dating apps in NYC was to have a degree from Harvard while the way to be oh-so-cool in LA was to have the coveted “blue checkmark” (indicating that you were verified by Twitter or IG as being “someone”). Soon, both of those will be trumped by an app on your phone indicating that you’re C-19 free …
These are just some of the features of our near future Upside Down, I suspect. What do you think will be the strangest things coming around the corner?