“When Will Things Go Back To Normal?”
I wrote this essay back in April 2020 for my Expository Writing class, my freshmen year at NYU. We were a month into the pandemic and I had no idea what was in store, 9 months later, and I still stand by every word I wrote.
Over winter break, I heard rumblings about this mysterious virus occurring in Wuhan, China called “corona.” The media portrayed it as a version of the flu, so I didn’t think much of it. The last time I remember hearing about a deadly virus that showed up out of nowhere was the Ebola virus. I was in middle school when the Ebola crisis was happening, and the United States was never affected by it, we had maybe ten cases. So I thought about the coronavirus with that same mentality. At the end of winter break, I went back to college ready to start a new semester. For the majority of January and February, I would hear little updates about the virus, NYU would send the occasional memorandum about the situation in the ShangHai campus, and I would skim over them. I remember thinking “wow, this must be a huge inconvenience for them over there.” Then the virus moved over to the Florence campus where I heard they were switching to remote instruction and the school sent an email at 10 pm telling everyone to get out. I thought to myself “wow, that sounds like a huge inconvenience having to book a last-minute flight out of Italy.” But then March came, all of a sudden the narrative started shifting. It went from an inconvenience to the rest of the world to a threat to the United States.
In Geoff Dyer’s essay, “The Existential Inconvenience of Coronavirus” he says “but inconvenience is only inconvenient when it happens to other people; when it happens to you, it feels threatening” (Dyer.) This virus went from being an inconvenience to being a threat to my health, wallet, and academic career. In Dyer’s essay, he analyzes the existential threat that the coronavirus poses in his everyday life. Such as making him question every single move he’s made throughout the day. Wondering if he will catch the virus because he used his phone after he touched a button and before he washed his hands. Wondering if avoiding a handshake with his tennis partner means they won’t transmit the virus to each other even though they touched the same tennis ball. This virus has changed every single aspect of American life. With this change, I and many others continue to ask the question, “when will things go back to normal?” This is a very general and harmless question, but I think during this time of stillness, we should ask ourselves, what is this “normal life” that we remember so fondly?
When I say I want things to go back to normal, I’m simply talking about being able to go to the mall or going out to eat on my birthday instead of moping around inside. By normal I mean being able to go back to my dorm, go out with my friends and take the subway not having to worry about catching a deadly disease (just the regular diseases that the subway has like the common cold.) By normal, I mean not having to wear a face mask and gloves to go to the supermarket where we need to line up outside of the store and wait for our turn to enter. Going to Costco with my mom on a Saturday morning and feasting on the free samples. Times when people didn’t think twice about buying toilet paper or visit five different stores trying to get basic cleaning products. Like Dyer, not having to worry if the amount of time it took me to enter my house and turn on the faucet with my contaminated hands will play a role in whether or not I infect the people in my house. Or the underlying guilt knowing any step I take outside could directly contribute to killing one of my family members. I’m sure when people say they want things to go back to normal, they mean the similar things I’m talking about as well: social interactions, shopping, eating at a restaurant, etc. Essentially, we want our weekends back.
While I wish the term “normal” meant all of these lighthearted things such as being able to go to a party or a concert, It is undeniable that this was not the “normal” that we were living before our lives were disrupted. Of course, this was a piece of it, but this quarantine in a sense has made us forget the reality that the majority of Americans were living. Realities such as living paycheck to paycheck. Not being able to call out sick because a lot of jobs do not offer paid sick leave. Being fearful of going to the doctor because they lack health insurance. We live in a country where a large percentage of Americans do not have four hundred dollars saved in case of an emergency. Not because they don’t care, or because they’re spending their money on avocado toast, but because they simply can not afford it. The reality that the people who have previously been referred to as “low skill” and “lazy” workers have now been labeled “essential” workers and “heroes” while being paid crumbs. The reality that our economy will crumble if people do not work for a couple of weeks and the economy relies on the fact that people are working day in and day out simply to make it by.
I am a huge believer in history repeating itself when people do nothing to change their ways. This current situation is reminiscent of the time during the 1870s to about the 1900s when the United States was in a time of economic growth. However, there was so much corruption going on underneath, this led to Mark Twain coining this period as the Gilded Age. A time where from the outside the United States looked shiny and glittery, however underneath the thin layer of gold was a huge amount of ugliness and corruption, and not so long after that, the Great Depression hit. I feel like this era of the coronavirus has exposed that we have been living in another Gilded Age. For years economists have been ranting and raving about how the economy is the best it’s ever been. Politicians have been boasting about how the United States is a world superpower. The Coronavirus took the gold coin that was the United States, and dipped it in a cup of acid, only to reveal the chaos that’s been going on underneath. After a month of sitting in this acid bath, the gold coin that was once perceived as the United States has been revealed to be a dingy plastic nugget.
I believe the coronavirus in a sense will serve as a turning point for the way people view this country and the way people classify their “normal” life. I see this pandemic with the same gravity as 9/11. After 9/11 the entire way in which people travel across the world changed. A new set of anxieties was instilled in people, and that was the fear of terrorism. Going through this pandemic has been a form of collective trauma. After this pandemic has subsided the way humans interact with each other and view themselves within our society is bound to change. There will be a realization that there are so many weak points within the foundation of our government and society. How can people go back to normal knowing that in a second their manager will drop them and care less about how dedicated they were to the company? Or realizing that their landlord would give them instructions on how to pay their rent using a credit card or tape a list of homeless shelters on their door rather than waiving rent in the middle of a pandemic? What about seeing the same people who thanked you at the grocery store for being a “hero” go on Facebook and say how grocery store workers are lazy and are not entitled to living a comfortable life? How can people go back to normal knowing the reason why NYC public schools stayed open for so long was because over 100,000 NYC children rely on the meals provided by the school as their only meal for the day? How would people be able to look at their neighbors whose first reaction to the pandemic was going to every supermarket within a five-mile radius and hoarding all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer? Or realizing that the reason why we have such high death rates is because the coronavirus viciously attacks people with preexisting conditions that tend to be related to obesity (high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, etc) and the United States ranks number one in obesity, due to the high amount of food deserts, and food inequity, while also ranking last among first world countries for healthcare.
Eventually, they will open up restaurants, movie theaters, and colleges. People will start to go back outside, ride the subway, and go to house parties where there’s hardly any space to breathe. The stock market will eventually go up, and this will be classified as our society returning to normal. However, we cannot deny the trauma that has been endured during this threatening time. The mass graves that will be built. “Wedding season” will instead become “funeral season.” For all we know, after this crisis subsides, there will be a shortage of black clothing. Every single American will experience some form of grief, however, not everyone will have access to the proper resources to manage their grief. The horror stories that are to come when people have to file for bankruptcy because they finally received their seventy-thousand dollar medical bill after they’ve been cured of coronavirus, because being incubated using a ventilator is not free. The realization that the virus may have caused lasting lung damage that people do not have the resources to treat. Students will return to their dorms, with the underlying fear that at any moment their school could kick them out and leave them stranded. Eventually, the children who lived through this event will become adults and will grow up having a secret stash of face masks and gloves, and that will become their new normal.
Unfortunately, the curtain has been unveiled, and the flaws that have been revealed to us, cannot be unseen, the shiny gold topcoat has been chipped off and we are faced with a new reality. We may stop trying to analyze the life span of bacteria on tennis balls and phone screens. However, the fundamental breaking points within our society cannot be ignored. With this new reality, we can either choose to accept this truth, or get our buckets of gold paint and start repainting. We might get back our weekends, however, we will never go back to the life that we lived before coronavirus. If the “normal” people long for is the blissful ignorance that we use to live, unfortunately, this is long gone. It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic where tens of thousands of Americans have died to realize that the way we were living before was not normal. The only way we can assure that these people do not die in vain is by deciding a collective to never return to the “normal” that we use to live.
Dyer, Geoff. “The Existential Inconvenience of Coronavirus.” The New Yorker, 16 March 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/23/the-existential-inconvenience-of-coronavirus.