5 surgical masks laid on a wooden table with a bottle of hand sanitizer
Innovation, Munk School

COVID-19 and the New Normal

The long-lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

When the Ontario government announced on March 12 that all public schools were being shut down for three weeks, I admit that I thought it was a prudent, but temporary measure. The University of Toronto and other universities throughout Canada were next to cancel in-person classes, a week after American universities and colleges began shutting down. Professional sports leagues, like my beloved NBA, were put on hold. The NCAA March Madness was cancelled. The premiere of the new James Bond film was postponed…until November! And then borders, including the longest land border in the world between Canada and the US, started closing.

Things have changed so much, so rapidly.

What I thought was a brief pause on life is beginning to feel like a new normal, and one that is surely going to last longer than a fourteen-day block — a period that once seemed to be the standard measure of time in the age of this coronavirus. Schools will now be closed until May, and I don’t have any reason to think our kids will be returning to school until June, maybe not until the fall.

The new normal is jarring, and I don’t like it. I am nervous about visiting my elderly parents, who are otherwise hearty, vivacious and healthy, but nonetheless elderly. It breaks my heart that my son can’t see his grandparents, and I’m sure it breaks their hearts even more. 

We have friends stuck in all parts of the world, living in a kind of existential limbo in which they are unsure they can get home. The streets here in Toronto are eerily empty, almost post-apocalyptic. I never noticed just how grey our concrete jungles are until now. 

 I find that I’m looking at my phone way too often, checking for news updates about Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the world over. I have suddenly lost interest in the daily machinations of the Democratic primaries. My son will soon resume his eighth-grade classes via online learning modules on his laptop. I think about toilet paper way too much. My wife and I are trying to figure out how our dining room table at home will become our work-from-offices for the foreseeable future. 

But the worst is the constant din of anxiety I’m experiencing every minute of every day, like a low-grade fever of constant worry that clouds my mind and my mood, without any respite. I even dream (and worry) about COVID-19.

And yet, I also wonder if this new normal might have some positive lasting effects.

Our premier, of whom I’m no fan, is acting and sounding like a leader. Our three levels of government in Canada are aligning their goals and policy measures, irrespective of party affiliation. It seems that people everywhere in the world are increasingly empathetic, more other-regarding, as we realize that we’re all in this together. The horrors of what we’re seeing in Italy or Korea or Iran is not just “their” problem, but a cautionary tale we’re all learning from in real time. That even Tom Hanks can be infected means that COVID-19 virus targets everyone and anyone, and unlike other viral pandemics, is not associated with certain behaviours. The coronavirus has made the world a much smaller place.

We seem to have developed a sense of just how incredibly vulnerable so many people in the world are, and how a virus like COVID-19 can make the difference between life and death. Fiscal conservatives and progressives alike are seriously considering disbursing emergency funds for those without work and legislating employment guarantees so people don’t lose their jobs. Governments around the world are basically flirting with the idea of a basic income grant. Trillion-dollar bailouts are not just for fat cat bankers on Bay and Wall Streets, but also for small businesses, mom-and-pop shops that might not survive the pandemic. Access to health care, even in the US, is a priority for everyone. 

It would be amazing if one of the enduring effects of COVID-19 is to create a lasting new normal, one in which we are all more human – and more humane – with one another.