Until two days ago I wasn’t sure I’d write a newsletter this week as I found most things I did suddenly somewhat pointless. When “normal” is dying, sticking to it seems weird and besides the point… until you have a new normal. In between old normal and new normal is a deep malaise.
At the end of last week I was in a deep malaise in the UK, witnessing how everything was unravelling in the world...but how it was almost “business as usual” in London, with schools still open, as was my yoga centre (with yogis still going as if nothing was happening). Then last Thursday came the UK “herd immunity” controversy: it seemed clear the UK government thought it was smarter than every other government.
The UK wouldn’t go into lockdown, close schools and impose new restrictions, because, the authorities said, people would “get bored” 😂, and because the strategy was for more than 60% of the population to get the virus so it would develop “herd immunity” and be ready for the next wave.
This very dubious strategy soon triggered a wave of criticisms. The strategy was blamed for being predicated on a series of dubious assumptions:
The idea that people do in fact build immunity against this virus (which is far from certain: some people in Italy and China have already had it twice, suggesting that recovering does not necessarily make you immune).
That the virus won’t mutate (the good old flu virus mutates every year, which is why vaccines aren’t effective enough).
That there will be a second wave in winter. (That may be the case, but why should the second wave matter more than the first? Shouldn’t one deal with one threat after the other rather than focus on next year’s threat? What’s the point of being ready for the second threat if the first one has already killed you?)
That the NHS will cope with the workload (it might already no longer be the case).
That the vulnerable can be protected (how? Just by telling people, “it’s best not to visit your old parents this week”?).
With a 1% mortality rate (which is a reasonable estimate, though no one knows what it will be in the UK), critics say, the contamination of 60% of the UK population would come with more than 300,000 deaths. Hence the hashtag #Boristhebutcher on Twitter.
It seems clear that half measures and “recommendations” will do too little to “flatten the curve” and the NHS is likely to be unable to treat even a small percentage of the sick who’ll need care. Indeed, as you can read in this alarming testimonial by an NHS doctor, things are already not looking good. Since last week, the government has made some kind of a U turn but the measures taken seem timid: schools were still open on Wednesday (I had to tell the school office that we had left the country)—they will close on Friday.
We had to make a quick decision… and decided at the end of last week that we’d rather face this crisis in France than in the UK. We are now isolated in Normandy, in self-quarantine for 2 weeks so as not to contaminate the inhabitants of our nearby village, in case we have it.
Normal is dead
Dramatic events like the current crisis can only be compared to a war, or a natural disaster of global proportions, or a crash like that of 1929 and 2008, but with wider-reaching consequences. Almost overnight everything changes rapidly and you need to cope with multiple immediate threats and disruptions. States implement extraordinary measures, unlock hundreds of billions of euros to help prevent a total collapse and maintain some form of order.
But our brains are not really equipped to cope with sudden change of such magnitude. Normalcy bias is our tendency to believe that things will function in the future the way they normally have functioned in the past. Under stress and in a context of uncertainty, we can’t process information effectively, or rather, we can’t find satisfying responses to the new situation. So we fixate on whatever it is we fixated on before to continue on with what’s “normal”. Let’s say you’re cooking a meal and then you hear terrible news. You will probably continue to cook immediately after because you can’t do anything else. However, while cooking you will now experience a malaise, feel a disconnect between your current activity and the new situation, feel that what you’re doing is pointless or completely besides the point.
Normalcy bias and malaise are characteristic of the period of transition between old normal and new normal. It is currently expressed in multiple ways:
Wanting to pretend you can tend to business as usual;
Speaking of “remote work” as continuing on with “normal” activities, only online;
Believing that things will go back to normal in a couple of weeks.
I’ve been experiencing the malaise for a few weeks now… and I am beginning to come to terms with the fact that old normal is dead. My revenues will be cut in half this year, the economic crisis will be deep and many companies will disappear, there will be no travelling in the foreseeable future, my children may not return to school in months, I may stay in this little Normandy house for a long time. And that’s saying nothing about the casualties of the epidemic and the long disruption of our health services. Things will not go back to “normal”. On a personal level, Brexit and the British reaction to the Covid-19 crisis have made us decide to leave the UK. I’ll no longer live in this city I love (London). I’ll have to partly reinvent my work and my business, learn to make do with less, live differently.
New normal is on its way and it’s not all bad
Normal is dead. And yet life continues. We humans form new habits so quickly. For example, as a family we’re trying to establish a homeschooling routine (so far our kids have proved surprisingly motivated! Maybe because they have no internet connection here and find that reading books is not so bad?). I’ve begun to write again. We all cook and clean (which I confess we didn’t do much of in the old “normal”). We spend our entire time together as a family of four in self-isolation.
Surprisingly the beginning of new normal (which is still unstable as the future is full of uncertainty) is a refocus on the things that matter the most. Unlike people in actual wars we don’t have to send our children away to fight and die. We may not be able to see our friends in real life, but we have more messages from them than ever before. We all want to help one another. We find we have more time to spend on the things we like the most (whether that’s talking to friends or reading books).
To teach our children about epidemics we watched Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011) together (we have a ton of DVDs here), a horrifying film about a pandemic and virus that’s more deadly than Covid-19. It was quite educational really. But it was also a very American film: the only thing you see in it is the violence inherent to a dog-eat-dog culture where people will only fend for themselves.
But what we also see today in Italy, Spain or France, three countries that have imposed a complete lockdown on the population, is expressions of solidarity, people stuck at home being incredibly creative and funny (check this video of a guy playing DJ in his kitchen, or this one of a guy doing exercise), joining together to sing from balconies, sharing resources, caring for others, thinking about society’s most vulnerable. Managers are understanding. Suddenly the issue of combining work and raising children is out in the open, visible and obvious (as it should always have been). Suddenly work is flexible and unnecessary meetings are cancelled. Honestly it would give even the worst pessimist some hope about human nature!
What we all see in the transition between old normal and new normal is the possibility of something better, institutions that provide social protection to those who need it, a health system that doesn’t abandon the sick, employers who are more understanding, communities that share their resources, people who care about each other. As most Western countries have let our collective institutions (social security, universal healthcare, redistribution of wealth, unions) crumble or disappear, we can see this current crisis as a wake-up call. These are the things we need and the things that make us happy. Maybe “new normal” will be better. At least now we can allow ourselves to find hope in this idea.
Ha, this section feels a bit like an example of normalcy bias. Maybe I’ll keep it and write “I’m in Normandy this week” every week? Or use it to write about our homeschooling experiments?
But I do (and will) have publications: I’ve just published this piece on Welcome to the Jungle: “Coronavirus: Why you need to be more empathetic than ever with your employees”, also in French, “Coronavirus : pour tenir en temps de crise, redoublez d’empathie”.
Content related to this week’s newsletter:
🗞️ “The UK backs away from “herd immunity” coronavirus proposal amid blowback”, Anya van Wagtendonk, Vox, 15 March 2020.
🗞️ “'I'm losing faith in the leadership': an NHS doctor's story”, Denis Campbell, The Guardian, 16 March 2020.
🗞️ “What If We’re at War?”, Nicolas Colin, European Straits #164, 11 March 2020.
🗞️ “Boris Johnson is more focused on Brexit than coronavirus”, Denis MacShane, Euractiv, 16 March 2020.
🗞️ “Democracy, trust and the virus”, Azeem Azhar, Exponential View, 15 March 2020.
🛀 “A hot bath has benefits similar to exercise”, Steve Faulkner, The Conversation, March 2017: well, that’s convenient! (at least for those of us with access to a tub). “Passive heating for human health is a relatively new field of research, but some exciting results have emerged over the past few years.”
🎵 “Does music help us work better? It depends”, Zaria Gorvett, BBC Worklife, 18 March 2020: “Historically, music and work have always been intertwined (…) Think about romantic visions of peasants singing as they harvest, or sea chanteys sung by sailors as they work on their ships.”
📚 Signes intérieurs de richesse, Rachel Vanier, March 2020: I’ve just started reading Rachel’s latest book and it’s hugely enjoyable. She thinks it was a bad idea to release a book during the crisis (and I agree with her as I am in the same situation!), but what if more people wanted to read her book because they have nothing better to do at home?
That’s all for this week. Stay safe. And let there be love! ❤️