Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine. 

Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic more than three months ago, the ebbs and flows of daily life have become a chaotic jumble bearing little resemblance to our former routines.

Activities that once seemed trivial are now anything but. A trip to the grocery store has become a planning-intensive affair, requiring masks, hand sanitizer and extra patience. Movie theaters are a distant memory.

For some, isolation is nearly constant. For others, dining out or taking a walk on the beach can be a vaguely familiar experience, like an alternative-universe version of normal.

Even the nationwide outpouring of rage about racism and police brutality is a reminder of how life has changed, and how change isn’t always a bad thing.

We asked  experts in a variety of fields, including doctors, historians, sociologists and philosophers, the same question:

Q: When will life get back to normal?

Dr. Nirav Shah is the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Nirav Shah

Dr. Nirav Shah Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Shah: What normal looks like – and when we might get there – is difficult to answer. To begin with, it may look different in different parts of the state. But we all should anticipate that certain aspects of our lives may not go back to “normal” for quite some time.

For example, large, dense indoor gatherings may be a challenge to pull off safely, perhaps even until a vaccine is available. Other aspects of our lives may return to “normal” sooner, but in modified form. Routine things like going grocery shopping look and feel different from how they did just a few months ago. But as with so many things, people are resilient and the “new way” becomes the “normal way” very quickly. Our path to whatever “normal” becomes will be one we forge together, guided by the kindness and collaborative spirit that Maine people have exemplified throughout the pandemic.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is a professor of sociology and African American studies at Colby College, and specializes in social problems and public policy. She is also an assistant pastor at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes courtesy photo

Gilkes: Normal, as we once knew it, will never be the same. Because of the pandemic – when I watch television shows I now cringe when I see people shake hands. There’s a range of things that we will reflect on, I think people will do a better job of washing their hands, more frequently. Let us hope that is the case. So that in terms of issues of hygiene and and health, there is now a new level of consciousness, and there will be a new level of consciousness. Even if we have a vaccine, people are going to think more openly, and a little bit more clearly about personal contact about health and hygiene.

I am also a professor of African American Studies here at Colby College – I am a sociologist. And so, in the middle of this pandemic, a month ago yesterday, the entire nation, actually the entire world, watched a man put to death by a police officer in real time.

This was not one of these cases  you’ve heard about, where you only had a piece of the video, where you had to ask questions about “what did the person do?” “was he or she resisting arrest?” “Don’t they know better than to reach for their cell phone?” All the different pieces of things fell together when this one man knelt on the neck of George Floyd, and put his hands in his pockets and looked directly at the camera and said “nobody’s gonna do a damn thing about me.” And the world saw race, and racism and police community relations in a totally different light. It was a lightning flash, that something is wrong, and have people asking questions, all shouting at one another talking to one another.

So, the new normal. I think will be a higher level of self-education, and a higher level of consciousness about race and racism, especially among white people in America.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills is chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth and a former Maine CDC director

Dr. Dora Anne Mills

Mills: I hope by 2022 we will have a widely administered and effective vaccine that will greatly reduce COVID-19’s circulation. Even if we have some vaccines fully licensed in a few months, it will take a number of more months to manufacture sufficient supplies as well as to distribute and administer them, and longer if more than one dose is required. Hopefully, by 2022 we won’t need to routinely mask or maintain physical distancing, and we’ll be able to travel more freely. Most importantly, I hope older people and those with other risk factors are no longer as isolated, and are physically more reunited with loved ones and communities.

However, there are some things that I believe may not return to normal. There may be continued outbreaks and hot spots, requiring vigilance and travel restrictions. (We’ve had an effective vaccine against polio for 65 years, and still have not eliminated the disease, due to areas where vaccination is challenging.)

There are other things I hope do not return to normal. I hope increased hand hygiene remains, since it reduces many other diseases such as influenza. I hope masking and physical distancing remain socially acceptable, for instance, during severe influenza seasons, especially for those most vulnerable. I hope telehealth continues, since it has improved healthcare access, especially for older people and those living in rural areas. I hope we continue to recognize racial/ethnic and socioeconomic health disparities that this pandemic has torn wide open, and that we have learned how to more effectively address them. I hope the economic partnerships that have sprung up continue, such as those providing healthcare supplies produced by Maine workers. I hope our workplaces and schools pull some positive aspects of telecommuting and distance learning into the future. I hope many continue to vacation close to home in our beautiful state. I hope we continue to value the importance of gathering together with our loved ones and communities.

Pandemics have a long history of ripping open society’s wounds. They also inspire social changes: the Black Plague helped to end feudalism; the 1918 influenza pandemic energized the 19th Amendment finally being enacted in 1920, giving women the right to vote; the HIV/AIDS epidemic fueled gay rights that led to equal marriage. The social changes inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic remain to be seen. But perhaps the recent focus on racism and justice issues that are made more visible by this pandemic, gives us a glimpse into the future.

Jason Read is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Maine.

Jason Read Courtesy photo

Read: I am not sure if I can answer when we will return to normal. A question that I would be more prepared to answer, or at least reflect upon is how what we are going through now will shape or alter what we consider to be normal?

The pandemic and the lockdown have altered the rhythms and emotional tenor of daily life. Big events, travel, holidays, and momentous occasions have been put on hold, as have the minor routines that make up much of our life. The emotional dynamics of life have been interrupted, things we used to enjoy such as shopping or even going to the beach have become sources of anxiety and fear.

At the same time we have had to create our own pleasures, our own joys, often in the face of fear and anxiety, some turn to bread-making while others adopt pets. I think that two of the biggest changes have to do with work and shopping.

With respect to work, some are no longer working, some working at home are recognizing how much work it takes to do all those things that rarely count as real work, raise kids, cook, and clean, and most importantly it has become clear how much we all depend on the work of others just to live. Some of have also wondered why they work so much, or why they risk their health and life for so little. Shopping, the counterweight to work, has also been stripped of its pleasures to become a source of stress.

Whenever normal returns, whenever schools and bars and malls open again, we will emerge as changed people, no longer oriented by the same habits. Perhaps we will embrace the old normal, perhaps we will insist on a new one oriented less around work and consumption.

David Hecht is an associate professor of history at Bowdoin College. He specializes in the history of science.

David Hecht Courtesy of Bowdoin College

Hecht: Maybe … a year? That’s just a guess, of course. There is too much we don’t know about the virus to be confident about any prediction right now. And it seems likely that different parts of normal life will return at different times. Furthermore, simply getting back some things that we are now missing may not suffice to make life feel normal. Activities such as school, sports and travel are slowly returning – but they won’t look the same as they did before the pandemic.

In fact, what really interests me as a historian is the extent to which life will ever return to the way it was. In some ways, we can certainly expect that it will; cultures and societies can be surprisingly resilient. But previous crises have changed normal life, sometimes irrevocably – we can think of how New Orleans is different after Hurricane Katrina, of post-9/11 security procedures, or of the cultural and behavioral shifts after the AIDS epidemic. Almost every crisis provides such examples – some large, some small. As a historian, I claim no special expertise on the nature of COVID-induced changes. But I suspect that they’re coming.

Jessica Miller is a professor of philosophy at the University of Maine.

Miller: Normal will never be the same, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When research subjects are asked what’s normal, their answers tend to land between what they think is typical and what they think is ideal. So when we long for a return to normal, we should ask, “normal for who?” The coronavirus pandemic has opened our eyes to disparities in health. It has shown us the problems with congregate living settings, from nursing homes to prisons. Indirectly, it has shined a light on injustice in policing, and the corroding effects of racism. I hope these awakenings lead to meaningful social change, a new and more just normal for those whose health and well-being have counted for less. And I hope we never forget that closing our eyes to social injustice is a choice. For everyone, the pandemic has meant a daily reminder of the fragility and limits of human life. With a vaccine and treatments on the horizon, I expect our anxieties will subside, but I hope we retain two things, one practical and one philosophical.

First, I hope the new normal is characterized by increased awareness of how our choices can affect others and a sense of personal responsibility for reducing health risks of all kinds. Second, I hope we exercise the ability to reflect on the significance of relationships, the meaning of work, the importance of education, and the temporality of human existence.


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