I’m calling it: we’ve won this war. By “we,” I mean normal people who want normal things: community, connection, creativity, with a bit of dancing on the side. By “war,” I mean the cosmic battle between two visions: a world dominated by the fear of a virus versus a world of rich and messy human experience.
The battle raged on for three years, and at times I was quite sure we would lose. Scientists, politicians, and media pundits kept insisting we worship a virus, blame our fellow humans for a force of nature, and stop hugging and singing and doing other people things. Those of us who timidly asked when this state of affairs might end were told to stop killing grannies and to remember how much worse people had it in the World War One trenches. The old normal was never coming back, the pundits proclaimed, and we had better get used to it. (You could almost see them rubbing their hands with glee.)
The very term “new normal,” with its smug and sadistic undertones, drove me to despair. I longed for the old normal—the wild and unpredictable world in which people authored their own lives, even if they got sick once in a while. A few people agreed, like the free-spirited American novelist Lionel Shriver and the crotchety former UK Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption, but we belonged to a distinct and unprotected minority.
I kept asking myself: did most people truly want this new normal? A year and a half ago, I put the question to a writers’ group I belong to. A fellow writer emailed back with these words: “I would suffer any more restrictions or curtailments to my life if it meant upping the odds that things will be safe and OK. I am happy to wear a mask for the rest of my days, honestly. I have no problem doing whatever the authorities tell me to do and won’t for as long as they’re telling me. Restrictions for as long as it takes. Works fine for me. Life is different now.”
I had known this writer for years. I liked her. If she felt this way, surely most other reasonable people did, too. People like me were anachronisms, cranks, petulant whiners. The Overton window was whizzing past us and our only choice was to suck it up or drown our sorrows in Riesling (the option I chose after reading my colleague’s email).
Most articles I read reinforced my perception that the bulk of humanity was ready to embrace a constricted life, if it also meant a (possibly) safer life. In 2020, National Geographic speculated that the pandemic would reshape our sense of fear and disgust, leading us to eschew crowds for years. In 2021, Bloomberg predicted that the pandemic would permanently change the fitness industry, with virtual workouts outmuscling the sweaty-bodies format.
Travel would also change forever. Reader’s Digest told us to expect socially distanced airport lineups and airplane seating for the foreseeable future, along with pre-boarding temperature checks. In-flight magazines would disappear (who knows what virions lurk on that photo of a Thai beach) and meal services would be “modified to reduce contact.” Travel industry executive Rafat Ali envisioned “Airbnb-type places that you can disinfect yourself” and surmised that “fear of humans and crowded places will be etched in our hearts for the rest of our lives.”
By the same token, many experts predicted that masks would outlive the pandemic. As early as October 2020, Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, proclaimed that “masks are in and handshakes out for the indefinite future.” A Vox article marvelled at the oddity of watching maskless gatherings in movies and on TV, as though this behavior belonged to some quaint prehistoric era. We clearly knew better now.
Never say never
I am happy to report that the prognosticators were dead wrong. The year 2023 is marching to a new drumbeat—an infectiously catchy beat that sounds remarkably like the Old Normal. All over the world, even in the most “progressive” regions, people have resumed doing all the things the doomsayers said would never come back.
Like travel. International travel, leisure travel, business travel… it’s all back, and then some. And people are booking their holidays farther out in 2023 than they did before the pandemic. And let me tell you about the medical conferences I attended over the past six months. Barcelona, Milan, New York, Montreal, Miami Beach… Let’s just say I saw a lot more handshakes than masks. And these are doctors we’re talking about. In large ballrooms, small meeting rooms, and intimate restaurants, they chose to go maskless. It’s only on Twitter that people still insist we must #BringBackMasks to stave off the apocalypse.
For close to three years, those of us who protested against a perma-masked, perma-distanced society were called ableist and eugenicist and fill-in-the-blank-ist. Now, the dwindling group of Covid zealots complain that they’re being made to feel like neurotic hypochondriacs. After years of fielding their insults, I can’t summon too much pity for them. They do indeed give off a neurotic vibe, their supplications like the final jerks of a beached fish.
I recently spent an evening at a party to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday. The big moment arrived and the honoree blew out her 40 candles—and then carefully cut the cake into thin slices, one for each of the 30-odd attendees. It was only later, as I was driving home, that it occurred to me: someone blew on a cake and nobody had a problem eating a slice. How perfectly ordinary. And extraordinary. Thank you, I said aloud in the car, to nobody in particular.
The sweet taste of vindication
I’ll admit it: there’s something delicious about seeing the soothsayers proven wrong. Not everyone agrees: “Measures such as social distancing and masking managed almost entirely eliminate the flu [in 2020 and 2021],” wrote Sarah Zhang in the Atlantic. “Experts hoped that this would show Americans a new normal, where we don’t simply tolerate the flu and other respiratory illnesses every winter.” Not for the first time, the experts got it wrong.
Ultimately, the expert class and its acolytes hoped that Covid would fundamentally change human behavior. That it would make us keep our distance from each other, retreat into ourselves, dedicate more of our lives to gardening (assuming we had gardens) and sourdough breadmaking (assuming we had a functioning kitchen). They wanted this. They really wanted this. But it turns out human nature is more powerful than their smug and classist vision. With their blinkered focus on a virus, they failed to consider that most of us want more from life than avoidance of illness. We’re even willing to tolerate some illness to get to the good stuff. Imagine that.
Remember George Costanza declaring that “I’m back, baby?” That’s what early 2023 makes me think of. We’re back, baby! We’re flying in planes and jostling each other in crowds and offering our friends a lick of our ice cream cone, and there’s nothing the Covidians can do about it. They can screech about masks and crowds on Twitter, but the world has moved on. Without fanfare, human nature has nudged the Overton window back to its pre-Covid resting position. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the view.