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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

The New Normal Will Be More Complicated Than We Think

By Ooi Kee Beng, THE EDGE, 30 October 2021

A crisis would not be a crisis if it does not generate strong anxiety and powerlessness. And with powerlessness comes a relentless search for a way out; for knowledge about the cause of the crisis and about the enemy or enemies at the gate, and for any information about outside conditions that can be used to advantage.

Along the way, self-criticism may set in, followed by some self-insight hopefully, for this is what will help prevent a recurrence in the future.

For a global mega-crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, external changes have mattered as much as domestic conditions. The helplessness felt has therefore been as broad as it is deep. The enemy is outside the gate and within the walls at the same time, and therefore the solutions have to be collective ones, demanding collective sacrifices and obedience—and individual patience.

Fatalism Helps

Citizens have tended therefore to show more support for their government than they would otherwise have done. Many have silently allowed their livelihoods to be threatened for the greater good, and they have had to draw on whatever sense of fatalism they hide in their soul to boost their patience. Resilience becomes the greatest virtue.

Limitations on movement is the essence of power; and in a pandemic they have had to live with it in spite of their impulses to resist. This bite-the-bullet attitude is badly needed if they are to tolerate whatever incompetence, incapacity and cluelessness—real or assumed—is observed among their leaders, be it politicians, public servants or influencers.

But lockdowns and closed borders cannot be the basis for a “New Normal”. It is not stable.

As the pandemic gets protracted, tensions grow and contradictions get more apparent. Sufferings—and sacrifices—are clearly not equally distributed. Some have grieved, and some have gained. Rights, needless to say, have not been equally enjoyed either. Such observations increase in relevance and frequency the longer the crisis continues.

With the excuse of a global health crisis that refuses to end, governments—and the bureaucratic mindset along with it—are enticed to go down the authoritarian path. With all probability, this temptation is stronger the less capable and insecure a government or a leader is.

What lockdowns and border closings encourage in the long run is isolationism. A fortress syndrome grows among people who are most comfortable with windows and doors locked, and who detest cultural diversity and change.

No Easy Exit

The last two years have in some cases already created a new reality for some which they might wish to keep. Those in occupations whose income have been little affected by the pandemic, and whose workload has been greatly eased, will find it hard to return to a fulltime working life. On the other hand, those who have been greatly affected by forfeiture of incomes and prospects or by dramatic personal loss within the family, will either remain dejected or struggling to rise again. Whichever the case, they will show little patience for collective solutions in the future.

For the rest, readjusting to new realities will take time. In general, patience will be in short supply, and each will seek their own solutions for the future.

The great inconveniences caused by fear of terror acts to travelling procedures between 2001 and 2020 will soon appear mild compared to the hurdles raised from 2021 onwards for fear of border crossings by viruses. In both cases, the enemy is invisible until it hits, and anyone can be the victim.

How much fear we should feel, and how fatalistic it is wise for us to be, will be the existential difficulties of our time. As an individual psychological matter, the challenge will not differ much from the fears of disease, decay and death we have always lived with. It is how a strongly protracted pandemic is handled as a collective matter that we should worry—and worry a lot—about.

Hopefully, economics will work against cultural and political isolationism. While much business can be created and conducted online, much production and consumption done remotely, and movement of goods and information without movement of people can suffice for a while, it is doubtful that such a situation will satisfy humanity for very long. Mobility and socialising are the essence of freedom, and the demand for these will grow the more they are curbed. Tourism, vital to many countries, cannot be earned without open borders.

In short, the analogue precedes the digital; and the digital prerequires the analogue.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest books include Catharsis. Second Change for Democracy in Malaysia (ISEAS & Penang Institute, 2018).

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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