How not to go back to normal
The pandemic exposed long-existing cracks in our global society – we should use the lessons of last year and our collective anger to start afresh, writes Diyora Shadijanova.
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The first thing I learned in therapy was how to sit with things. By the time I reached breaking point, I had spent a lifetime avoiding discomfort and pain as a coping mechanism. And I was scarily good at it. My previous life, before everything stopped, was busy. Busy was my favourite word. When friends would ask me how I was, I’d smugly say things like, “Oh you know, it’s just been so busy at the moment”, as though there was pride in going a hundred miles an hour. Or whenever my mum would FaceTime me from the other side of the world, I wouldn’t pick up. Guiltily typing, “sorry I’m busy right now x” into my phone, lost in a tide of people I didn’t know, at some event my friends dragged me to, in a part of town where trains stop running after midnight.
There was a lot of pain inside of me – sadness masking my fears and my fears masking my anger. My brain, always pulsating away with quiet anxiety, needed distractions. Podcasts during travel, Netflix marathons, Twitter doom-scrolling, so many notifications I’d forget what the background of my phone looked like, weekends spent hopping from one party to another to “show face”, endless work I liked the idea of, but didn’t actually enjoy. It seemed to never stop, until it did.
I believe many of us went through this process when the world stood still and took away most of our distractions. We were at a loss with what to do with ourselves. Stuck in the purgatory of our confined rooms, we clawed at the walls and peeled away layers of glossy paint, only to uncover rotting foundations underneath. The surrounding structures turned out to be shaky. The pandemic made it impossible to look away from the long-existing cracks in our global society and made us confront something very uncomfortable – we weren’t all in this together and the world remained deeply unequal.
“I can’t wait for things to go back to normal,” people still say. But isn’t “normality” what drove us here? This so-called normal exposed the poorest and most vulnerable people to Covid-19. In “normal” times, our government had no plans for a pandemic and failed to protect the nation. And isn’t “going back to normal” just going back to a time before we realised how interconnected everything is? Instead, we should use the lessons we learned last year and utilise our collective anger to start afresh.
“Stuck in the purgatory of our confined rooms, we clawed at the walls and peeled away layers of glossy paint, only to uncover rotting foundations underneath.”Diyora Shadijanova
There were a lot of things to be angry about in 2020, namely the continued institutional racism and classism in the face of a viral outbreak. Entire industries collapsing and economies damaged overnight. Realising how little public space there is for those who don’t have gardens. People’s slowed down “new normal” lifestyles having a minimal impact on climate change. The national debate in the UK about whether poor children deserved to eat or not.
But anger also allowed us to get stuff done. We petitioned, we marched and for the first time, many of us started living outside of ourselves. We shouldn’t lose this energy in 2021 because most of these issues will still need fighting and they won’t go away with a magic vaccine. We should channel our collective grief to use this force for good. What causes will we continue to actively support when the previous distractions of the Before Times start filtering back into our lives one by one?
Our current, hyper-capitalist world forces us to think individually, yet as human beings, it’s in our nature to exist in groups. Last year, we also got to know our local communities. Whether that’s because a neighbour slipped a paper through the door with their number on for emergencies, or because a digital mutual aid group popped up in our area. We finally spoke to the people we’ve spent years politely nodding to each morning and instead had sustained and interesting conversations. We asked if people needed help and we asked for help.
We learned to problem solve collectively and used our various privileges to push for change. Within the creative industry, various brands launched initiatives to help wider causes; Spotify created the COVID-19 music relief to help struggling artists, Atlantic Records created Blackout Tuesday, The British Film Institute launched a recovery plan for the sector and hundreds of organisations partnered with the Arts Council to create writer and artist funds for those struggling to find work this year. The Equality in Audio Pact encouraged production companies like BBC Radio, ITN Productions and IMG Media to eliminate unpaid internships and create more diverse teams.
“We shouldn’t lose this energy in 2021 because most of these issues will still need fighting and they won’t go away with a magic vaccine.”Diyora Shadijanova
Food outlets came together and said they’d feed the hungry children over the holidays if the government refused to. We halted as many deportations as we could. We used the internet in ways we didn’t think we could before. We created a life-saving vaccine in the race against time. And amongst all the chaos, we still managed to find rest and joy, which is crucial for long-term, sustainable change. We made memes and sought out the light in the dark. In my lifetime, this is the first time many of us have been forced to think beyond our day-to-day and be reminded that we’re all living in the same ecosystem. We’ve been humbled and it’s made us more mindful. And sure, 2020 was far from perfect, but at least we started making progress by banding together.
So as we step into 2021 and our lives become “busy” again – it’s crucial we don’t go back to our previous state of disconnection. We can’t solve upcoming challenges of the climate crisis and global inequality alone – and this type of power is built in our local communities, which have been increasingly abandoned during previous years. We simply can’t afford to go back to normal, otherwise we’ll find ourselves in this same dreadful place of limbo before we know it. 2021 is our chance to get things right.
About the Author
Diyora is a multimedia journalist based in London. She is the opinions and personal sssays editor at gal-dem and writes reported features about culture, digital culture and young people stuff for places like Vice, Refinery29 and more. She also hosts a podcast called Broccoli Book Club.