The New Normals

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The expected, usual, typical state of affairs is being replaced by a new state of being, to which we must henceforth get used. This means adapting to the change by accepting that it is not going to be ‘business as usual’

The expression ‘new normal’ has gained currency in common parlance for quite some time now. In fact, Wikipedia describes its origin as follows: ‘New Normal is a term in business and economics that refers to financial conditions following the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the aftermath of the 2008–2012 global recession. The term has since been used in a variety of other contexts to imply that something which was previously abnormal has become commonplace.’

The implication is that after some dramatic event, the expected, usual, typical state of affairs is replaced by a new state of being, to which we must henceforth get used. This means adapting to the change by accepting that it is not going to be ‘business as usual’, and therefore we have to anticipate that similar events will recur and be ready as far as possible to face them.

In fact, after the bombings in Brussels in 2016, a leader in the UK journal The Economist referred to terrorism as the new normal in Europe – which ‘had suffered another series of murderous attacks by jihadists. They will not be the last’.

By now there are many phenomena that have become the new normal after their initial sudden manifestation, ranging from environmental catastrophes to social disruptions. But on looking back, a moment’s reflection will show that not all of them have been negative as the new normal has come to be perceived, especially in the wake of the more damaging events and their consequences. But what is clear is that things are not the same again. Not only do we perforce have to get used to doing things differently, but they become our normal ways soon enough.

Looked at this way, there are many examples of developments, not necessarily sudden but new, that were sprung upon us and that have since become the normal in our lives. An example of such a positive disruption is the advent of internet and email, without which we cannot now imagine how we will function, and ditto the computer component in whatever form – desktop, laptop, mobile, iPad, etc – that is now ubiquitous throughout the world. Along with these have developed the various platforms and engines that constitute social media – and after they have collectively invaded our lives, bringing convenience and ‘progress’, the ugly face of their unintended consequences is now being revealed as hacking, surreptitious use of big data, breaches of confidentiality, spying, etc., have also in their own way become the new normal!

The contemporary scene worldwide affords us a series of recurring phenomena that qualify as the new normal. Most dramatic are of course those that are catastrophic in nature and are increasingly viewed as being related to the climate change that is now generally accepted by the scientific community as being caused by human activity. In this category are the cyclones of unparalleled intensities and frequency as never before had happened – e.g. in the US east coast states, in Philippines, in India –, heavier than usual rainfall occurring in shorter periods of time leading to flash floods and inundations (in Mumbai recently), excessive summer heat as in France and some other parts of Europe (and this time they were better prepared).

We too in Mauritius have not been spared either: witness the suffocating temperatures that assailed us earlier this year, lasting weeks altogether, so that even in usually cool Curepipe we were overwhelmed. Who would have thought of ever having to use air-conditioning in Curepipe? And yet this is a new reality for its denizens, and many of them have already installed AC units in their homes and others are contemplating or planning to do so before the next summer season sets in. The simple fan is no longer sufficient to dispel the heat: at least there must be an AC back-up. And with it naturally up goes the electricity bill! – for which one must budget.

The flooding and inundation problem affecting specific localities and residential areas have also become the norm following rains even when they are not all that heavy. There are several reasons that explain this aberration, amongst others the levelling of fields that have altered the course of natural streams without making any alternative drain-off arrangements in anticipation of the impact on neighboring areas, constructions sauvages and covering of drainage systems by citizens without due consideration for their neighbours, inadequate or absent enforcement of regulations by local authorities. At the other end of this spectrum is ‘water water everywhere but not a drop to drink’: frequent cuts in water supply even as the reservoirs have more than adequate amounts.

All these have resulted in new forms of social unrest, expressed through social media going viral or people taking to the streets in large numbers to express their anger and frustrations. Public protests have a glorious pedigree, for example workers’ movements, suffragette marches at the turn of the last century to press for women’s voting rights. But they took a new form altogether in our times with the uprising in Tunisia some years ago, which led to what became known as the ‘Arab Spring’ as it spread across the Arab world. People felt they were not getting their due and decided to confront power directly, as they felt that those in power were conspiring with the rich and similar others to deny them rights and provide for the conditions conducive to more than just survival living, a situation in which many found themselves.

Unfortunately though, despite the fact that several leaders and governments were overthrown, the Arab spring in retrospect turned out to be more like a winter: the expected improvements in the people’s lives did not arrive according to observers of the Arab world.

This protest spurned others around the world over the years, forcing a comedown by the authorities in France for example following the Gilets Jaunes protests over several weeks, and most recently the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong that have forced Hong Kong’s first female leader Carrie Lam to withdraw the bill that was to be passed in Parliament.

Though not on the same scale, here too there have been localized street protests in relation to flooding and the interruptions in water supply, and those that are ongoing regarding the creeping appropriation of our public beaches by vested interests such that Mauritians becoming strangers in their own country is looming as a serious threat.

We will have to continue fighting very hard to prevent such threats from materialising into new normals. It’s a long struggle ahead, but there is no choice but to persevere.

* Published in print edition on 12 July 2019

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