The prolonged COVID-19 crisis: uncertainties and notions of normality

My new book COVID Societies: Theorising the Coronavirus Crisis will be published by Routledge in April. Here’s an edited excerpt from the Conclusion chapter, where I reflect on COVID futures.

We may not all currently ‘live in the kingdom of the ill’, as Sontag (1990, p. 3) described experiencing a cancer diagnosis, but we are all now living in the kingdom of COVID. Even if our individual fleshy bodies have not yet been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or perished from COVID, our bodies politic and our more-than-human worlds have borne the blows and bear the scars of the outbreak. This book has demonstrated the value of applying different sociocultural theoretical perspectives in explaining and understanding COVID societies. I have shown that we need theory more than ever. Indeed, we need a diverse range of theories that are able to elucidate the multiple, dynamic and intertwined dimensions of the continuing COVID crisis.

In the process of demonstrating how sociocultural theories can offer valuable conceptual insights into the complexities of the COVID-19 crisis, I have also provided an account of what it has been like to live through the first year and a half of this catastrophe across the world and the impacts the pandemic has wrought on social relationships and identities. Throughout the book, a series of intertwined threads have crossed back and forth between the macropolitical and micropolitical dimensions of COVID societies: contagion, death, risk, threat, uncertainty, fear, social inequalities, stigma, blame and power relations. Overarching these threads are five complementary themes: the historicity of COVID societies; the tension between local specificities and globalising forces; the control and management of human bodies; the boundary between Self and Other; and the continuously changing sociomaterial environments in which the world is living with and through the shocks of the COVID crisis. In moving back and forth between the minutiae of people’s experiences of the COVID crisis and large-scale socioeconomic dimensions, between mundane practices and extreme levels of social disruption, disease and death, the book shows how interrelated individuals’ lives are with the more-than-human relationships of which they are inextricably a part. Across the world, across a multitude of diverse cultures and histories, people are suffering. They are vulnerable: to anxiety, fear, despair and insecurity about their future as well as poverty, ill-health and death.

… COVID societies call into question some long-established assumptions and return us in some ways to pre-Enlightenment times, when fate appeared to rule humans’ lives. Together with becoming attuned to the other deep crises facing the planet – chief among them climate change and global warming – the COVID crisis has shaken core beliefs about the ability to control our destinies. At this point in the pandemic, people are reeling from the apparent lack of success that even the most powerful and wealthy nations have had in containing and managing its effects. Human societies have always faced crises and catastrophes, including recurring pandemics involving great misery, confinement and loss of life. These events have always inspired affective feelings of fear, anxiety and dread. They shake people’s sense of safety and security and make them feel that their world has suddenly become an uncertain and unpredictable place. However, the COVID pandemic is the first truly global crisis since World War 2. For people living in disadvantaged, chaotic and dangerous situations or parts of the world, crisis is endemic rather than episodic: they are constantly in a state of fear and uncertainty, never knowing how their lives can be improved. What is remarkable about the current COVID crisis is that people in the Global North now experiencing a prolonged crisis. Even for privileged social groups and high-income countries, the COVID crisis is continuing for far longer and has far broader impacts than previous crises or emergencies they have faced in their lifetimes. The current catastrophe challenges their norms and expectations about the security and safety of life and their futures and the control they can exert over their lives. COVID changed everything extremely quickly, but its impacts and dangers have not been easily resolved.

The major question for the future of the post-COVID world is ‘What will “normality” look like?’ once the crisis has passed or at least been dampened somewhat. It is difficult to determine yet whether the COVID crisis will lead to profound social and political changes; and if so, where in the world these transformations may occur. As I write, the crisis is continuing, and in some places, worsening. Uncertainties are proliferating rather than subsiding. The crisis has not yet become normalised or endemic. Even as we hope that things are getting better, we are still experiencing surges and emergencies, situations where apparent control has turned to sudden disorder. We do not know yet what the world will look like once COVID is better controlled. While hope was initially invested in the modern science expertise that developed and tested effective vaccines against COVID in record time, the continuing emergence of new, more infectious and deadly variants, together with breakdowns in the delivery of the vaccines have dented the initial optimism.

Governments and citizens just want everything to be over and to ‘get back to normal life’. Many officials and politicians have made continual reference to the ‘COVID normal’ or ‘new normal’ state of affairs that they hope will eventuate. This goal, however, is apparently becoming less and less achievable. Instead, attempts to relax restrictions and becoming complacent about the threat posed by SARS-CoV-2 had time and time again led to loss of control over the virus. These terms assume a transformed kind of ‘normal’: one that will be marked forever by the events of the COVID disaster. It implies a new epoch in how everyday lives will be experienced post-COVID, potentially involving such practices as heightened awareness of personal hygiene measures to prevent infectious disease, less international air travel, working from home more often for those whose occupations allow it, the offering of more study online options, and an emptying out of the city and a population shift beyond the urban centres as a result.

Some health experts have suggested that the new normal may involve ‘learning to live with COVID-19’ by being alert to continued outbreaks, seeking regular booster vaccinations to counter the regular emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants, self-isolating when exposed to the virus and engaging in other precautionary measures. They have speculated that rather than the COVID crisis ‘ending’, it will become endemic: a recurring threat like seasonal influenza. Such statements often lack nuance, however. They fail to recognise that ‘living with COVID’ will inevitably be a far better experience for the already privileged people who have been fully vaccinated, are in good health with excellent access to quality healthcare services and are able to maintain their levels of income during periods of stay-at-home or self-isolation restrictions. As societies ‘open up’, people living in conditions of socioeconomic disadvantage and social groups and populations who have been unable to access vaccinations will be facing a much higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID as well as even greater levels of debt, poverty or homelessness.

Beyond these practices, the ‘new normal’ phrase refers to an affective state of being. It suggests that people will begin to feel a sense of ‘normality’ again, which in turn is imbricated with feelings of hope, optimism, reassurance and wellbeing as compared with the affective states of anxiety, fear, powerlessness and uncertainty that have thus far characterised experiences of the COVID crisis for so many people. These kinds of pronouncements assume that most people are yearning for ‘normality’. However, as cultural commentators and critics have frequently contended, normality in the pre-COVID world was experienced by many people as a state of entrenched socioeconomic disadvantage and marginalisation. Others, even those who were privileged, were struggling with prevailing feelings of dread and hopelessness about how pre-existing crises such as food insecurity, entrenched violence against women and climate change were affecting not only humans but all aspects of the planet. These people want a new normal that is very different from the ‘old normal’. This imaginary of a ‘better new normal’ envisages a world where the neoliberal emphasis on ‘small government’ is wound back, the massive divides between the poor and the wealthy have been reduced, there is alleviation of poverty, the creation of stable employment opportunities and universal access to good quality and safe housing and healthcare. This vision looks beyond remediating the impact of the current COVID catastrophe to hoping that governments and global agencies would be making serious efforts to address the environmental impacts of climate change and where preparations and investments for the continuing fight against further infectious disease outbreaks have been put in place.

Photo credits: Author

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