What Does “Going Back to Normal” Mean?

For all the talk of “going back to normal” in the United States, not only are certain countries and communities still coping with COVID, but pre-pandemic normal wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (Photo Credit: Travis Wise/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

In the United States, there is a growing sentiment that the global pandemic is “winding down” and that we are moving past a life dictated by COVID-19 restrictions. Someone evidently forgot to inform the coronavirus of this, though, and some health experts are similarly wary about putting a rubber stamp on this whole health crisis.

The World Health Organization, for one, has cautioned against calling the pandemic “over” when significant portions of the world are facing vaccine shortages and variants that are potentially more transmissible and/or more deadly, according to a report by Berkeley Lovelace Jr. for CNBC. As WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed, “The pandemic is a long way from over. It will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.”

Lovelace’s report, in part, details a tale of two countries. In the United States, for example, COVID cases have been on the decline and some medical experts have suggested fully vaccinated people can eschew the mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines previously established by the Centers for Disease Control, at least among themselves.

In India, meanwhile, daily cases are in the hundreds of thousands and the country recently set a new daily record for deaths. Researchers are still trying to get a handle on what the B.1.617 variant means for transmissibility and to what extent vaccines will safeguard against it. Experts are, for the most part, optimistic on the vaccine aspect, but this assumes that vaccine distribution is orderly and that people are complying with the recommendation to vaccinate. Depending on the country and even geographic/demographic factors, that’s not a given.

Even in nations like the U.S., reaching so-called “herd immunity” may be difficult if not impossible. In addition to new variants popping up, vaccine hesitancy (I mean this in terms of people who are indeed “hesistant” and not out-and-out anti-vaxxers), ineligibility for young children to get immunized, and low access to vaccines for poor/racialized members of the population makes it all the more probable we won’t completely eradicate COVID-19. Much like the flu, it will become endemic. This is to say that it will likely become less deadly over time, but nonetheless, a seasonal occurrence.

There’s also the possibility that relaxing mask and social distancing guidelines, while not to completely undo the progress we’ve made on COVID recovery, could cause spikes and prolong our collective suffering. Of course, context matters. Going maskless makes more sense if you’re walking alone outside with no one else around than if you’re riding the subway, assuming local or state guidelines even permit you to do the latter.

Even so, the rush to return to relative normalcy could prompt people to become too relaxed when it comes to meeting up in public places. In addition, and not merely to be cynical, but people may claim to be fully vaccinated and not actually have followed through with the required dose(s). The honor system is only as good as the buy-in of those involved, and judging by the refusal of many to wear masks correctly (hint: it goes over your nose) or at all, not everyone may have your best interests in mind.

In all, “going back to normal” makes sense to a lot of Americans, but that reflects a worldview which potentially overlooks struggles in other countries, overestimates the availability of vaccines, and reflects an exasperation with being in quarantine for over a year. We’re not at the finish line yet, despite ample room for optimism.


While a significant part of the push to get back to normal, whether people are getting vaccinated or observing mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines is only a portion of the larger discussion we should be having. For one, as difficult as it was for people to forge new routines in response to COVID’s disruption of daily life as we knew it, it’ll be as difficult if not more so to transition back to the old way of doing things. In addition, some people, places, and jobs haven’t quite recovered from the pandemic or never will. It’s not as if we can simply erase the damage done by a global health crisis that has lasted more than a year. The ripple effects will be felt for years to come.

By no means do I wish for a deadly pandemic to continue just to prove or drive home a point. Worrying whether the wrong interaction with someone will possibly lead to their death, my death, or both gets exhausting. In the headlong rush to get past what has truly been a dark time for much of the world, though, what does seem to be lost to a large degree in the conversation is how “normal” wasn’t all that good for many Americans.

Before the pandemic, for example, greedy corporations like Amazon were effectively paying zero taxes and taking advantage of monopolistic business practices to rake in profits. The pandemic only made Jeff Bezos richer and gave the company that much more latitude to, say, run a multi-million dollar campaign to thwart a unionization attempt in one of its warehouses in the U.S. Millions of young people are being crushed under the weight of our collective student debt. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Black Americans are still getting killed disproportionately by police. Our planet is still hurtling toward a climate catastrophe.

The pandemic hasn’t obviated our responsibility in addressing these problems. Now we are looking at putting COVID in the rear view mirror and going back to brunch, content to ditch the masks absent any meaningful reflection on how broken our society already was. Our battle to overcome COVID-19 is an opportunity to rethink how we redo things at a structural level. Unfortunately, we seem dead set on learning little to nothing from our communal suffering, with the worst actors apparently intent on driving us further into the abyss and more quickly.

There’s still time to take a deep (and hopefully fully-vaccinated) breath before we turn the page on COVID, a disease we very likely will continue to see in some form in the years and decades to come. It would be a shame if we didn’t use that pause to think about how far we have come and how far we as a global community have to go.

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