Attack on what Normality?
COVID-19 is here to stay. A marathon that forces us to reflect.
Already once, about 130 years ago, from 1889 onwards, a coronavirus (OC43) spread rapidly from Central Asia by travellers from all over the world, first to Russia, then to Europe, America and then worldwide. This "Russian flu" or "Chinese cold", the first global pandemic, probably jumped from cows to humans, with similar effects. It overwhelmed the medical profession, cost the lives of about 1 million people over several years and paralysed many sectors of the economy. OC43 still exists but is now only a harmless cold virus.
The current coronavirus, COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2 (often just CoV or CoV2) is now more or less an integral part of life on all continents - and it will remain so. Many of the precautionary measures will also remain.
Already at the beginning of the crisis, in March 2020, I had largely correct dealt with the topic "COVID-19 - an analysis from a bird's eye view", but a complementary, renewed look at it seems appropriate. In the meantime, CoV2 has become normal. What does this mean for our understanding of habits? First of all, the crisis makes us realise that normality has never really existed - the idea was deceptive and has never stood up to reality. Next, the crisis teaches us how important it is to get back to ourselves and to what we really need. Finally, it challenges us to adopt a new attitude, one in which we value the things we have and do more than before. Because nothing can be taken for granted. COVID-19 teaches us to acknowledge this.
Even the thought that the pandemic is under control was, and is, deceptive. After the lockdown and most of the restrictions in some countries were lifted, the illusion struck again: "Return to normality!” But there is no normality in the sense of an intact world. There never was, even significantly so before Corona. But this crisis is now forcing us to respect this and to finally draw the right conclusions.
The overriding feeling in the summer of 2020, at least in the EU, was that the exceptional situation had ended and the situation had returned to normal. Politicians, experts and the public had learned a great deal about the virus, although the possible adverse health consequences were far from fully understood. But the first functioning treatment methods, catalogues of measures and rules had been worked out, and they provided security. And so we tacitly came to a point where we thought that this was it now, and that things would quickly return to a new - i.e. actually back to the old - normality. According to the motto: "COVID-19 was yesterday, now we shall enjoy the summer, the holidays, things are almost normal again, we can breathe a sigh of relief again, who is still talking about the coronavirus?” It seemed as if the situation was under control.
But it turned out differently. The CoV2 case numbers rose quickly and sharply again, in some places worse than before. COVID-19 hygiene discipline and cautiousness have been lost on many. Thus, governments are rowing back, re-rating numerous regions and entire countries as risk areas, with travel warnings and putting them on the "black or red list". Regulatory measures are, in a more targeted way, back in force.
No "normality" even with the vaccine
Now everyone is hoping that vaccines and medicines will soon be available. In fact, the chances of this happening are looking quite good at the moment, aiming towards the middle of 2021. But even vaccines and medicines will defuse the pandemic temporarily, not permanently. Not everyone will get vaccinated, CoV2 will probably mutate like the flu virus - meaning that drugs that helped yesterday will not work tomorrow. Moreover, it is far from certain that once people have been infected and convalesced, or vaccinated, they would thereon be immune, as there are already contradictory findings. There is hope for this, but a generally valid statement cannot be derived from it. There is also a vaccination against the flu virus, which protects to a certain extent, hence it does not protect one hundred per cent. It does not protect all vaccinated persons, and not every winter, and often not without side effects. That is why influenza - although there are vaccinations - claims around 650,000 lives worldwide every year.
Therefore, we should slowly but surely consider COVID-19 as part of our everyday normality. We should think about how to deal with it in the long run and make the best of it. (Recalling Prof. Jim Collins' 'Stockdale Paradox': "Confront the Brutal Facts, Yet Never Lose Faith"). This does not mean that we give up a cowardly fight, which we should fight heroically, but it is about insight into the real situation. It is about deriving some decisive insights and actions from this.
Because that is what society ignores: We will not return to the old normality. Dealing with COVID-19 is becoming a marathon. The virus is obviously here to stay. To meet such a challenge with hopes and wishes alone is more than naive. Instead, it is now a matter of questioning some of the self-evident fundamental facts of our previous life and lifestyle and also of understanding that humanity as a whole must rethink its self-image.
The virus forces us to reflect
The virus has turned many people's lives upside down. For many, CoV2 was, and is, a nightmare - especially for those who are seriously ill or for the families and friends of those who have died from it. For others, however, the virus and the lockdown were a positive dream: finally being able to take a deep breath, decelerate, calm down, relax, finally no more aeroplanes in the sky, no more traffic jams because of home-office, hardly any cars on the streets, better air, hardly any crowds anywhere, more peace, a better quality of life. For others, the situation became an existential test: “Is my job still working?” - “Is my business or my business idea still working?” And: “Will what I previously thought was normal, continue to work?”
Whatever the people have experienced, most will cling to the idea of a return to normality: Some people may see this virus as a punishment from God, as the sword of Damocles, as an invisible enemy - or even as a wake-up call, the great opportunity for change. In any case, CoV2 offers the chance for people to return to something that was taken for granted, something most of them have long forgotten: Consideration for fellow human beings and nature, respect for fellow creatures, gratitude for the immeasurable technical possibilities of today and for what we have.
What does it actually mean to live on earth? COVID-19 is now also asking us to think about this - after the plastic waste in the sea, the question of more and more energy sources adding to more and more global warming. Even if the Earth Overshoot Day in 2020 came due to COVID-19 on 22nd August 2020 three weeks later than the previous year, there was enough evidence before to suggest that we overreacted. The supposed "normality" was overexcited - and now the virus is forcing us to stay at home more often and to protect ourselves and others in encounters. It's forcing us to think about whether we shouldn't develop some empathy, especially with the rest of creation.
The virus will be as normal as the sun and moon
And COVID-19 shows us: We cannot permanently assume that things will remain as they are. And CoV2 reminds us: there has never been a life without disruptions of varying intensity - from power cuts to war. And if we're honest, we know that too. The explosion of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate hit Beirut in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. Possible events do not wait patiently to happen just because there has been a recent disruption. Reality speaks to man's belief that everything will remain good and safe, it mocks, and man does not understand it.
Besides, people overestimate themselves; they have never really ruled the world. Humans could never do anything against earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. We don't control the sun, wind and rain either. CoV2 is now pushing us back into our minor role in world affairs. The virus will be as commonplace as the sun and the moon, as wind and rain, like the seasons, as day and night, like ebb and flow - with the same self-evidence. Just as we accept all the consequences of the earth's rotation and the dynamics of the solar system by adjusting to them, we will also have to take the virus as a given. It will determine our lives just as relentlessly. All that remains is for us to accept the behaviour of the Sun, planets and Moon with all its consequences. In the same way, we will also have to accept the virus with all its consequences.
It could have been something worse than a barely aggressive coronavirus, which forces us to return to our smallness. With COVID-19, we might even go as far as considering ourselves lucky: the mortality rate is not 95 per cent, as with the plague, or 67 per cent as with Ebola. The transmission is not as difficult to prevent as with malaria. Undeniably CoV2 has hit quite a few people and companies hard economically. Others, however, profit from a windfall effect, get state aid in the form of lost grants, subsidies and almost interest-free, long-term loans also guaranteed by the taxpayer. Some even see "whining money" as part of a company's profits. Overall, CoV2 has not destroyed any know-how, nor has it bombed any business premises, nor has it destroyed any infrastructure. In this respect, the restart of the economy was and is not a feat, but rather a question of a coordinated and sensible reboot. Of course, economic recovery will take time, possibly years.
In any case, it was very implausible that we had lived without such a disruption for so long. But just because a generation does not experience war, war is not unthinkable. At the same time, man tends to regard the usual conditions as the measure of all things - especially in the modern industrialised world, in which people consider prosperity, abundance, licentiousness, egoism, "infinite" - as possibilities, power, protection and security to be normal, because they are just given, taken for granted.
But as I said, normality is deceptive; it is based on a selective perception of what is actually possible. In fact, everything in this world is very fragile. Everything can be different at any moment or even come to an end. Tomorrow the next great challenge could be waiting for us, could be against us, whether through our own responsibility or by entirely different forces. Whether it is human-made, through nano-materials that could lead us into a foreseeable disaster in a few decades if we do not take countermeasures in time (Nanoparticles – potentially more dangerous than nuclear waste) or whether the decline in the bee population is destroying the entire ecological balance, which Albert Einstein warned us against in 1949. No matter what it might be: There will also be existential disruptions in the future, and humans will never be able to prepare for them entirely.
However, despite this certainty, humanity in its hubris thinks it can control everything. Man denies his powerlessness and is subject to the illusion of omnipotence and that is why he believes that things would not change without his intervention. We humans simply do not want such serious changes as the measures against Covid-19! We have made ourselves so comfortable that what we do not wish for, cannot be. We prefer a static position. We want everything predictable, planned for, safe and stable over long periods of time. By fearing the actual volatility of the world and therefore suppressing it, we simply accept too much as consistently valid and granted. In reality, however, this reliability we so desire is pure fantasy - precisely because the lifetime of a generation is only the blink of an eye in eternity.
What the virus demands of us
Just as the sun doesn't care what we think, the virus doesn't care what we think. Whatever our views on CoV2, we now have different requirements.
We'll have to get used to it: Not only do we need a fast reaction speed to master acute situations, but we also need stamina. We must realise that life is fragile.
This requires in particular more mindfulness from all of us. It is imperative that we all go through life more alert and alive. Being awake, being alive, being attentive, looking. This must take place every day, not just now and then - this must become a habit of life, being careful in one’s dealings, every day, always.
At the same time, mindfulness trains us in something we have long forgotten to do, namely exercise caution. Ruthlessness, fear and panic are inappropriate. Nor do we need to be afraid and panic about the weather, but being careful and mindful is appropriate. To be cautious about the resources of our planet and creatures is also appropriate.
Caution is not fear, it is the opposite. Caution is a conscious, clear, deliberate, voluntarily applied behaviour of looking closely, checking, weighing up the calculation of risks and making conscious decisions.
Be careful when dealing with COVID-19
Caution concerning CoV2 means: To keep asking ourselves whether what we are doing is really necessary. To ponder: Why do we do what we do? Therefore we keep reminding ourselves of the reason and value of what we are doing - and thus end the thoughtlessness of the "former normality". So: Do we go to work because we are enthusiastic about this very job, because it is our calling, is it just because we need the money, because we feel a moral obligation to our colleagues? Do we go to work reluctantly, against our heart’s desire, reason and vocation? To be careful would mean: We watch out, we look ahead - and we look at why or for what purpose we are doing something or where we are leading. Why are we now going to this or that celebration or gathering, this vacation spot or that department store? Is it because everyone is doing it, because we've always done it, because today is Thursday? Is that enough to justify why we do or need something?
If the justification is sufficient, we do it - and then caution means a conscious and considerate behaviour in every single action, always with an eye on the possible consequences. Caution can also mean that we take a closer look and admit to ourselves that the reasoning is too weak and that we then say: We leave it alone, we won’t do it, we won’t buy, we will do without - because the product may be at the lowest price, is carted halfway around the world instead of preferring regional produce, in which the environment is destroyed or the workers are ruthlessly exploited.
When we deal with COVID-19, we are automatically dealing with the ability of humans to become aware of habits, possibly abandon habits and acquire new ones. It is very good for our civilisation to give an account of our habits and to ask ourselves which habits are worth thinking about. Does it really make sense to go on holiday five times a year - mostly to escape the frustration and everyday stress - to fly to Morocco for a weekend rave party or to Mallorca for a binge in a hectic rush for four days at the price of just a few euros? Leaving a devastating ecological footprint as a result, or no less so, of constant business travel? And this even though in business, online conferencing finally proved to be an excellent alternative? Is the reasoning really so overwhelming that it weighs more heavily than caution?
Awareness of values and a new basic attitude
Ultimately, CoV2 leads us into a new awareness, namely into an awareness of our value, the value of our life and also the value of the community in which we are embedded - for family, marriage, village, city, university, company, workplace. We are all called upon to be more careful, to look closer and to live more consciously.
Hence COVID-19 kindly, but also very emphatically, urges us to be more aware and less ignorant. CoV2 thus makes us mindful of the value to the value of the many different things that are necessary for our "oh so normal life". The virus forces us to be more aware of the interlocking of this machinery, of what we call "normal life". We recognise what makes this "normal life" possible in the first place, everything that plays into it and what depends on what and how. We measure everything that has to work in order that things run "normally". And we realise how fragile things, circumstances, health, nature and all life are.
This will not only make us aware of the caution to a basic attitude, but also the idea of the basic attitude in general. A basic attitude is an attitude that belongs to the foundation of our life, that demands sustainability, and that cannot be changed at will. A basic attitude is a foundation of life, of dealing with others, with family, nature, prosperity, diversity, being different and many other factors. Supposedly old-fashioned virtues, many originating from the founder of ethics, the Greek polymath Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), such as decency, loyalty, gratitude, humility, moderation, friendliness, openness, the kindness of heart, benevolence, diligence, empathy and others suddenly play a role again. This again requires caution, and this on all levels - whether it is about statements, conclusions, opinions, judgements, responsibility or other matters. What do we base our self-image on? What are we really about? What is really important and significant for each and every one of us?
There is and never was a "normality"
A look at the economic prospects is also elementary: the printed assets, the vast sums of money that are now being moved around the globe as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have never been more enormous in the history of humankind than they are now. Of course, in the long run, this will lead to a not inconsiderable devaluation of money, but in the short term this money, similar to a flock of birds flying around the planet, wants to land safely and be useful at some point. So it is also a question why it should alight with you, with your company, what you have to offer in return. Going against trends, backing significantly more regionality instead of globalisation or even rethinking some business ideas from scratch, shouldn't be an evil plan. The broadly defined areas of agriculture, nature and environment-related business, green energy - as soon as real sustainability and no greenwashing are involved, but also handicrafts and digitisation should experience an economic upswing. Digitalisation is likely to continue its disruptive campaign in the economy even more aggressively. In this respect, the Indian-American star investor Naval Ravikant may well be right for many sectors with his statement: "Your company may not be in the software business, but eventually, a software company will be in your business".
But above all: Let us all, please get rid of the term "normal"! Normal is nothing. Normality is a fiction, a construction that we have built to feel good, to pacify ourselves. In the universe, nothing is "naturally present". It is all voluntary in the universe. That is why caution is so important: we need good reasons for everything - because normality does not support us. Basic attitudes, on the other hand, do carry us. The wiser a society behaves on these issues, the better it is for the future and all of us. Then, in the marathon with COVID-19, we might not have an enemy at all, but a friend who helps us in our self-contemplation.
“The end of the CoV pandemic does not depend solely on the availability of a protective SARS CoV-2 vaccine”, said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Director-General for Europe, in his keynote speech at the Health Symposium at the European Forum Alpbach on 24th August 2020: "It will end when we have learned to live with the virus".
In this respect, we all have it to a large extent in our own hands, so that there will be a light at the end of the (COVID-19) tunnel in the foreseeable future.
Reinhold M. Karner
(RMK Think Lab)
© 1st of September 2020
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