Only the virus is novel

… and every other problem is old.

Yes, you got that right. Other than this ‘novel’ coronavirus (there are many other coronaviruses by the way, including the one that causes the ‘common cold’), every other problem that you think has been caused by it, is old.

“Deep down we know, it’s not going to be soon,” said Ankita Dutta Chowdhury, when I expressed my wish of going back to the old normal. Ankita is a student of Microbiology at St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata. Young people like her have accepted that the new normal is here to stay, within a few months of the pandemic spreading its wings. This made me think: Are we so immune to normalising life-changing events like a global pandemic?

In March 2020, after the nationwide lockdown was announced in India, Indians woke up to horrific images and news of the plight of migrant workers returning from their place of work to their residences in faraway lands. People cried. Friends welled up while talking to me. “Don’t mention,” someone would say, to maintain their sanity. In the wake of a global mental health crisis, the conscience of the common folx seemed to have woken up to the reality.

Or so you would think. Today, months from the lockdown, everyone is desperately wishing to have the old normal back. Including me. And I am, finally, truly, and deeply — ashamed of that.

The old normal — in which the migrants live far apart from their land, in search of a basic income. The old normal — in which ‘development’ happens only in big cities, but the local economies of the vast land are not sustained or energised. In which, in the country’s financial capital with massive development, manual scavenging is still a reality. In which the public healthcare system is falling apart, and with no exception, each and every high-profile politician diagnosed with COVID-19 has been administered in private hospitals, thus proving the point: Healthcare of the masses lies in abject apathy of all governments.

Right after the lockdown, crippled by the absence of the domestic workers, the so-called Indian middle class talked about their own privilege. Locked down, they got an inkling of what their lives are like without the labourers who work to keep their houses running under “normal” times. They talked about the barber, the cobbler, the iron-man, the car-mechanic. They felt ashamed of their privilege.

Or so you would think. Today, social media is filled with posts not of the strangely elusive dalgona coffee, but of the first coffee-dates after the lockdown. Not with beautiful pictures of the azure sky and dolphins and mountains visible from the distant plains, but of a comet from the distant Kuiper belt.

But I would like to imagine a new world.

One where two square meals a day is a fundamental human right. Since you are born into this world even though you did not plan to, it is the world’s job to feed you. The old normal could not ensure that.

One where healthcare is a fundamental right. If a new disease spreads because of the abject callousness of governments around the world coupled with science-denial, then it is the governments’ job to ensure that you are adequately taken care of.

One where access to verifiable information is a fundamental right. One where education that inculcates critical thinking and decision-making based on verifiable, objective, rational thinking — is a fundamental right.

One where security against calamities like COVID-19 are a fundamental right.

How hard is it to imagine that everyone must be equal? Turns out, it is pretty hard. Because we have grown up in a system in which how and where and to whom you take birth has determined every step that we have ever taken in life.

“If you are born poor, your thoughts remain poor forever,” my PhD advisor had told me back in 2016. He had implied that if you are worrying about your survival all the time, you worry about your survival all the time. This thought had moved me then, but I had forgotten about it as the image created by the ‘normal world’ had made me an apathetic being. And I am deeply ashamed of that.

In January 2020, Oxfam International released a report on the economic inequality in India. To summarise:

“The top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth. 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1%, while 67 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1% increase in their wealth.”

If that’s not scary enough, let me tell you what is worse: the inequality is increasing:

“There are 119 billionaires in India. Their number has increased from only 9 in 2000 to 101 in 2017. Between 2018 and 2022, India is estimated to produce 70 new millionaires every day.”

The pandemic stuck. The economy has gone into a recession. But the richest Indian is now richer than the richest in Europe and the fourth richest in the world.

I was asked: In light of the global issues revealed or enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you imagine a path to a better future?

My answer is the following.

There is no one answer towards a better future. The answer must be searched from every corner, in every way.

The middle-income people of the world, who are electoral tools of the rich and the powerful, must realise the economic ladder in which they are precariously standing: one slip, and they will become a part of the masses who die in abject apathy while the powerful continue to distract and divide everyone in the name of religion, caste, creed, and nationality.

A new normal is one where we stop dreaming of bigger fortunes and greater opportunities created by those at the top, but instead look towards more ways of self-sustenance.

A new normal is one where success is not measured by the economy.

A new normal is one where people of all sex, gender, caste, colour, religion have the same fundamental rights. Where everyone fundamentally believes that the fundamental rights should be the same for everyone.

Where the society is built on principles of objective thinking and led by scientific research.

The only way we can achieve them is by recognising the economic position of ourselves in the society, learning to understand that deep, structural problems have always existed and are not abating soon, but we must strive in every way to get rid of them.

Pardon me if I forgot to mention the eradication of the virus, in the ‘new normal’. Turns out, only the virus is novel — and every other problem is old.

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