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2021: Embrace a ‘New Normal’

Written by Molly Bolding

Picture the scene: it’s the end of July, your friends are all in your living room, dancing, pouring drinks and toasting the end of an arduous academic year. As the long evening stretches into the darkness, you all huddle under blankets in front of the TV and drift off to sleep. In the morning, you hug goodbye and head back home to plan more night outs and days in the sun.

If this sounds like a dream, it’s because it probably is.

The reality is that summer 2021 will most likely not be business as usual for anyone. After the nightmare that we called 2020, I think we would all like to suddenly wake up, rub the sleep from our eyes and wonder how we all ended up caught in the same terrifying fever dream. Instead, we’re left lying awake at night wondering how much longer this could go on for.

Whether we like it or not, “COVID-19 is here to stay, and the future depends on a lot of unknowns, including whether people develop lasting immunity to the virus, whether seasonality affects its spread, and — perhaps most importantly — the choices made by governments and individuals.” Even with the slow drip of vaccine doses making their way into wider society, the sheer demand means that beyond healthcare workers and the most medically vulnerable, the vast majority of us – especially young people and university students – won’t see any kind of reliable protection from COVID until late 2021. Even then, confidence in the vaccine will undoubtedly waver – either due to the infectious conspiracy theories or the potential of the virus to ‘escape’ the counter-active power of the shots – and by then we could be looking at another year of online classrooms and habitual isolation (another family Zoom quiz, anyone?).

It’s hardly a cheery prospect. This year has seen an exponential rise in mental health issues and antidepressant prescriptions for people of all ages, but especially young people, who are watching their late-teens and early-twenties disappear in a puff of cancelled graduations and online exams. The likelihood of more months of the same should be ringing serious alarm bells for student mental health services and for the government, who appear to be making pandemic policy in the same way we all played Tetris when we were eight – throwing misshapen ideas into gaping holes and hoping that it turns out okay in the end.

I know that, right now, most of us would give anything to be back in a world where we could sit in the same room as our family and friends without fear of passing on or contracting a deadly disease. But the problem with wanting things to go back to ‘normal’ – the ‘old normal’, we might say, compared to today’s ‘new normal’ – is that the ‘old normal’ was familiar, but not necessarily good.

We know that pandemics, along with wildfires, extreme weather and rising sea levels, are all symptoms of global warming: a direct and immediate ecological threat to us and every other living thing on the planet. We have seen how global health emergencies like this one consistently and disproportionately affect people of colour, to the extent that the country that provides the majority of the world’s nurses – the Philippines – will not see widespread vaccine distribution until 2024.

Without leaning too heavily on the search for a silver lining, it is crucial to recognise the golden opportunity for change that our generation has been handed. The pandemic has shown us once again that the insidious effects of climate change pose a more direct threat to our quality of life than we have ever previously recognised. The second wave of the Black Lives Matter movement has shown us once again that racial justice and Black liberation need to be a core part of global policy making, in every area from housing to healthcare. The dearth of protections for front-line and essential workers has shown once again that a government that does not prioritise the lives of life-savers is a government that does not have your best interests at heart. Without going all ‘Gen Z TikTok’ and pretending that we can save the day single handedly, we do need to start genuinely engaging with the opportunity that has been put in front of us – to make the ‘new normal’ one that improves the lives of everyone, not just the rich white men who have made billions off our late-night Amazon purchases.

So where do you start? How do we approach 2021 with all of this in mind? Self-care (genuine care and appreciation of the self though, not just buying more scented candles) is a good start, as is making some flexible resolutions – eat less meat, grow a plant or two, and try playing Outlanders on your phone (it’s surprisingly calming pretending to be the quasi-god of a tiny island village). It might feel counterintuitive at such a time of crisis, but now might also be a good time to practise quietly pushing your comfort zones from the safety of your sofa – join a new online club, read more books by queer people of colour, and buy from your friends’ small businesses if you can afford it (and share their posts if you can’t). At the same time, be forgiving of your own limits – if all you can manage right now is watching Netflix from under a fluffy blanket, that’s okay too, and you shouldn’t feel any shame about taking things a day at a time.

My personal advice for the new year? Less doomscrolling through BBC headlines, more sleep if you can, and the occasional slice of cake for breakfast. After all, you only live once.

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