Constructing a ‘New Normal’: What Changes when it’s all over?

What will life be like once ‘normality’ returns?

Without needing to resort to crystal-ball gazing, it is obvious that whatever normality emerges, it will be a form of a ‘new normal’.

We will be required to negotiate radically altered public health and economic conditions, as well as new complex emotional geographies. So here, I want to briefly refer to the disaster and emergencies literature to think about some of the experiences, and challenges of, constructing a ‘new normal’.

First, the pandemic is most obviously, like disaster recovery, both a public health and a social problem. In some instances, the ‘new normal’ might involve challenging historic inequalities and outdated modes of ‘doing’ politics. Yet while Rebecca Solnit has examine the novel forms of community that emerge post-disaster, a common challenge for these emergent networks is finding ways of generating momentum and to embed those traces of positive change in post-disaster landscape. Note, there is strong evidence that they rarely persist!

In other instances, negotiating a ‘new normal’ will mean encountering the inevitable challenges that emerge from a ‘relief’ orientated system. Disasters are often characterised by an onset of immediate relief response (including mass resource mobilisation and availability of emergency funding), followed by difficulties in acknowledging and responding to its longer-term implications.

While disasters might prompt social learnings as we encounter the opportunities and challenges of constructing new normal, there is unfortunately little evidence to suggest that governments learn sufficiently from such events. Ilan Kelman, a prominent disaster risk reduction expert, notes that, despite “response being more expensive than precaution, and precaution is cheaper than cure; there is little political appetitive to invest heavily in emergency preparedness”.

Such lack of appetite, sees Lee Clarke and Thomas Birkland call evaluations of emergency response ‘fantasy documents’: documents that are not generally about the ‘real’ causes and solutions to disasters; rather, they are generated to prove that some authoritative actor has ‘done something’ about learning from an event. Unfortunately, the current examinations of Exercise Cygnus – the government pandemic simulation that led to the conclusion that a pandemic would cause the NHS to collapse – lends limited confidence to the idea that a ‘new normal’ will be more aptly or inclusively governed. 

Important questions remain as to how these evaluations can contribute to a ‘new normal’ that enables us to effectively negotiate these possible trajectories, and subsequently can be imagined as more hopeful.

Dr Simon Dickinson is a Lecturer in Human Geography at Edge Hill University.


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