Julianne MalveauxOp-EdOpinion

MALVEAUX: Back to Normal? What’s Normal?

I got my first COVID-19 vaccination last week. No big deal, an achy arm, but otherwise, just like a flu shot. The young lady who administered the shot smiled and said, “after you get your second shot, you can get back to normal.” I wanted to ask her what was normal, but the man in line behind me seemed impatient, so I smiled and made my way out of the store.

I thought about it all the way home, though. What’s normal? I don’t think crowding 30 or 40 young people into a classroom is normal. I don’t believe that food lines snaking for blocks is normal. I don’t think that high Black unemployment rates are normal. I don’t think the wealth gap is normal.

I don’t think that more than 400,000 people dead is normal. The inability to formally mourn our departed loved ones isn’t normal. Crazy white people storming the Capitol surely isn’t normal. And conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene is so far away from normal that she is on the insanity spectrum.

In the ten months since the pandemic hit, we have seen changes in our communications, our employment, our economy, and more. Many of us, reasonably, yearn for the “normal” days when we could sit at a restaurant and have a meal, go to a play or a concert, invite a bunch of folks over to gather. But we should ask ourselves what was normal about our normal. In other words, were we so comfortable in our world that we didn’t look outside our world? We can’t miss the food lines now, but there were food lines, too, a year ago. We are focused on disparities now, but those disparities aren’t new. Does back to normal mean accepting the inequities and absurdities of life as it was?

Somebody tweeted that “Rona was a disruption, and she is an opportunity.” I embrace that sentiment (though I had to do a double-take at “Rona” and pray that nobody chooses to name their child after this virus). This virus is an opportunity for us to scrutinize what we consider normal and how we need to change it.

Let’s start with education and the achievement gap. Students who come from low-income families don’t have the same academic support that others do. They often don’t have the technology to do virtual learning or the support to work through their assignments. Too often, their parents are essential workers — nurses, bus drivers, grocery store workers. Do we ever take a look at the people who serve us and notice that they are disproportionately Black and brown? When we see them, do we wonder about their facts of life, about their challenges, or do we know the status quo as “normal”?

Is it normal for teacher’s unions and mayors to be so far apart? If we want students back in their classrooms, why can’t we vaccinate every teacher and school worker? But the conflict between teachers and elected officials, especially in Chicago, calls for a national conversation with educators, students and parents. We’ve heard from everyone but students in this conversation. What are they thinking and feeling? Is any of this normal?

We never saw mask-wearing as standard, and even now, with more than 400,000 dead, some fools refuse to wear them. But here’s the real deal — vaccine or not, I’ll likely be wearing double masks until the end of the year, and so should you. People who have had the vaccine have still tested positive. They still need to wear masks and wash their hands frequently. But too many have made mask wearing a political statement. Our non-mask-wearing former president contracted COVID-19 and got priority treatment and had access to the drug Regeneron, which is not available to the general public. And he still won’t wear a mask, emboldening his sycophants.

I really don’t know what is normal anymore, but I am sure that if 2019 was normal, we must embrace the abnormal. Or, we need to define the new normal as safe, fair, and equitable. As my anonymous tweeter said, “Rona” is an opportunity for us to check ourselves and maybe get it right.

Malveaux is an economist and author.

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