Opinion | COVID-19 and the new normal: Shaping the future or watching it happen?

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Considering how COVID-19 was once projected to be a two-week pause, the fact that the pandemic has lasted around for more than a year feels utterly surreal. Over this past year, far-reaching changes have meant that deep-seated injustices render themselves ever more blatant, revealing and exacerbating the pre-existing inequalities plaguing our institutions and social fabric.

Even during the early stages of the pandemic, news media was inundated with images and videos of completely barren grocery store shelves, people fighting over the last rolls of toilet paper and immense hoarding of food along with other essentials. Price-gouging of mundane commodities (for example, toilet paper increased in costs by up to 500%) demonstrated how zero-risk bias, despite being an understandable response to uncertainty, undeniably worsens existing capitalist inequalities. Not only can many individuals not afford to hoard or pay ridiculous premiums on products, but childcare and working from home are luxuries that many take for granted.

Essential workers, who are overwhelmingly racially marginalized and lower-income, continue to be placed in precarious positions where risk of infection is dramatically higher. Though we have titled them “essential,” our institutions treat them as disposable, valuing them only for their labor without regard for their wellbeing. While the government has emphasized these workers as critical to the functioning of our everyday lives, they are also the ones most vulnerable to devastation by the pandemic, precisely because of phenomena such as food deserts, as well as inequities profoundly embedded in systems of healthcare, employment, and education. Even when we celebrate their labour, portraying essential and frontline workers as “heroes” frames them as immune to physical and emotional exhaustion, consequently rationalizing their exploitation. Will we continue prioritizing productivity over personhood, or will we choose to embrace an ethic of care that actively disrupts the expendable status of low-income and at-risk individuals?

Unfortunately, we often fail to realize the severity of crises until they strike in our own backyards. Like catastrophic crises in the global South so often obscured from the West, many of us found ourselves detached from disasters that did not directly threaten our survival. When marginalized communities already coping with endemic poverty, environmental destruction and failing infrastructure were further ravaged by hurricanes, media coverage quickly receded after a few days, effectively leaving these vulnerable populations to fend for themselves. In Flint, Michigan, it took five years for the city to deliver clean water to residents who still harbor concerns about its quality in the present day, despite widespread reporting and public concern. These instances do not even encapsulate the calamities left entirely undocumented by the news, which can preserve a false guise of stability and prosperity until crises begin arriving at the shores of those with more socioeconomic capital. While low wages compounded with increasing living costs have already steadily devastated the livelihoods of many American workers for years, for others living in relative comfort, the pandemic may have furnished them with their first taste of what it is like to harbor some degree of financial uncertainty.

Apart from economic injustice, the crisis has rendered the prison industrial complex ever more visible, with its violence growing increasingly blatant. Mass incarceration not only naturalizes but also perfects state-sanctioned violence, sustaining itself through neoliberal corporate interests with absolute disregard for those contained within. The law has always been used as a tool of social repression, with contemporary race-based policing only an extension of the state’s unwavering biopolitical control over black and brown bodies throughout U.S. history. Current conditions of confinement are a ticking time bomb — prisons and detentions are fertile breeding grounds for the spread of virulent disease. These injustices aren’t relegated to prison confines; the uncontrolled spread of the virus affects all of us and should be weighed as a grave public concern.

Sociologically, the virus has also intensified centuries-old tropes of Yellow Peril and perceptions of the East as filthy and diseased. The American public, including many prominent policymakers, have utilized the virus as a broad, sweeping justification for xenophobic sentiments. Besides violence and aggression against the Asian American community, the virus’s outbreak has taken a devastating toll on Asian American businesses. In Chinatowns across the country, restaurants and other establishments have fallen to the brink of permanent closure. In my hometown of Seattle, I’ve watched helplessly as some local Asian establishments with which I associate so much of my childhood have made the difficult decision to close their doors. While I have faith in our community’s resilience, we must acknowledge the collective necessity of developing long-lasting modes of socioeconomic support. 

It is striking how coronavirus has revealed just how precarious modern notions of societal “progress” truly are. Even amidst a pandemic threatening the health of our society as a whole, our political systems have conversely become more polarized, with responses against the virus starkly divided along party lines. Notably, the crisis has forced society to reconsider and reshape its fundamental principles. From the balance between individualism and collective good, to determining the role of the state in caring for the most vulnerable, to assessing our historical emphasis on efficiency over resilience, our beliefs continue to be challenged. Instead of merely reacting to events, how do we go about taking active control of our futures? For some, the pandemic has thrust values of family, authentic communication and unapologetic rest to the forefront of our individual lives. Many of us have truly confronted the reality that togetherness and interpersonal interaction are not to be taken for granted. Previously quotidian activities like sharing a meal with friends and family have become precious moments.

Though we have learned to adapt to present realities relatively quickly, such as through altering our modes of work and schooling, it often feels as if institutions are trying to preserve a false sense of security far at odds with our turbulent circumstances. Oftentimes, I find myself questioning how my obligations involve finishing a problem set when the outside world exists as it does. Attempting to preserve normalcy may be a viable coping strategy, but I wonder about its long-term sustainability. It’s important to also question why exactly we want life to return to normalcy, whatever that may entail. Besides the simple joys we all took for granted like going out to eat with friends, what does “normal” truly mean, considering just how much systemic injustice has been revealed since the beginning of the pandemic? Conceptions of normal have to account for occurrences like mass protests pushing for systemic reform against anti-Black police brutality, the perceived disposability of marginalized workers by corporations, the anti-Asian violence that has been brought to the forefront, the attempted coup d’état at the Capitol. We must pause and ask ourselves: Is it feasible or desirable for the world to return to how it was before?

As we continue sculpting the future, there are two routes we can still take. Either we emerge from this crisis more fractured, disarrayed and lost than before, with informal interpersonal linkages severed and preexisting social, political and economic groups growing increasingly alienated. Or we develop novel ways to protect the marginalized and preserve social engagement, through community-based initiatives, mechanisms of long-term economic recovery and even long-lasting changes to our environment. Regardless of which path we choose, it is undeniable that our society will emerge wholly different from what it was before. 

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Sarah Xu is a staff writer for The Grind section and a contributor to the Daily’s Social Media. She is a freshman from Seattle, Washington seeking to major in sociology or public policy on a pre-law track. You can catch her constantly trying and posting about new recipes or at thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com for more mildly existential inquiries.