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The new normal: Don’t expect a return to pre-pandemic life, experts say

It’s been a year since COVID-19 was labelled a pandemic, lockdown measures became the norm and the terms social-distancing, contact tracing and flattening the curve became part of the global language.
March 30, 2020: Playgrounds at Greater Victoria schools were closed, including this one at Oaklands Elementary. [Adrian Lam, Times Colonist]

It’s been a year since COVID-19 was labelled a pandemic, lockdown measures became the norm and the terms social-distancing, contact tracing and flattening the curve became part of the global language.

Pandemic fatigue has set in for many, exhausted by stress and anxiety and feeling isolated from friends and family.

And while there have been glimmers of hope that 2021 might bring a relaxation of health regulations and a return to a kind of normalcy for parts of the economy, some believe this pandemic and its legacy will be with us for a very long time.

“In a very practical sense, normality will prob- ably look quite a bit different, in part because the coronavirus looks like it will become a fairly endemic and persistent disease in various forms as it mutates,” said Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Royal Roads University-based Cascade Institute, a research centre that looks into the convergence of the world’s environmental, economic, political, technological and health crises.

Homer-Dixon said the planet’s economic, ecological and social systems are wound so tightly together these days that the likelihood of more pandemics and other significant system shifts has increased.

“The idea we are going back to the way things were, well there are just too many things in motion now on this planet,” he said.

“This is just a foretaste of what we can expect in the future and people need to understand that. There’s this deep yearning to go back to the way things were, but I’m sorry: There isn’t going to be any normal anymore. Everything is going to be abnormal going forward.”

What that abnormal state looks like will depend on the effectiveness of vaccines against COVID’s variants, which threaten to become persistent and chronic, Homer-Dixon said.

If the vaccines can’t handle the variants, it could result in some fundamental changes around the world, and certainly in Victoria. “It raises some interesting issues, like how

our economies will have to configure themselves,” he said, noting the virus and its variants could mean any economic activity that requires social proximity has to adapt.

That has implications for the region’s tourism industry, the arts community, office work and retail operations, he said.

But it could be particularly painful for the cruise-ship industry. “I have long felt that Victoria has made an unwise

bet and a massive economic commitment to this industry,” he said, noting the sector has proven for years that it’s vulnerable to disease. “I was not surprised it was the first industry to be hit by the pandemic.”

Homer-Dixon expects a rebound for tourism, though not likely to pre-pandemic levels, and says there could be a fundamental shift in the region’s economic focus, with construction and real estate emerging as bigger players.

The flight to the perceived safety of the Island, which

has weathered the COVID- 19 storm fairly well, coupled with savings in the pockets of people who have been able to work through the pandemic, has driven real estate in this region to new heights and spurred on an already busy construction industry.

“It could change Victoria pretty fundamentally,” he said, adding the pandemic has also widened the gap between wealthy people, who have been spending less, and people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, who have been disproportionately hurt by it.

“If the pandemic causes us to put fewer eggs in the cruise basket, it might be a good thing for Victoria. On the other hand, the widening of the economic gap and making the city completely unaffordable for the people who run the place, well that’s a real problem.”

Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, said the gap between the haves and have-nots was wide before the pandemic and the crisis only exacerbated the situation. “I think there is more realization now that it is not sustainable,” he said, noting increased economic inequality is linked to a rise in populist political movements, and more polarization is not good for business.

Klein thinks the pandemic has increased willingness to take action and make changes.

“The consequences of not acting become stronger and stronger,” he said — something that’s as true for the economy as it is for climate change.

He hopes coming out of the pandemic, the world will shift to a broader, stakeholder view of capitalism, where companies can’t simply bury their heads in the sand and focus on the bottom line.

“There’s understanding that you can’t separate out the bigger issues, that you’re not running businesses just to make money,” he said. “There is pressure to change from customers, employees and society more generally.”

Klein expects companies and non-profit organizations will lean into a broader sense of organizational purpose and playing a more positive role in society post-pandemic.

He said that started to happen last year.

“Those businesses that Canadians were trusting were the ones seen to be helping out on a broader level, whether that was helping out employees and trying

to retain staff or if they were seen playing a positive role in society,” he said. “Coming out of the pandemic, those values and societal contributions will be more important.”

Klein said the pandemic has likely given most people space and time to consider what’s important to them, and as employees, they will be taking stock of the companies they work for.

As worries grow over the spread of the coronavirus, grocers keep stocking shelves to meet demand. (ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

“There could be a fair degree of job shift out of the pandemic,” he said. “When the opportunity returns, [employees] may start asking questions about how organizations treated people during the pandemic.”

Klein does not expect a return to a pre-pandemic normal when the economy reopens, predicting hybrid models for how organizations expect their employees to work — splitting time between working from home and the office — and how they interact with customers.

He thinks those companies that are online-only may take an initial hit, while traditional retailers that were forced to adopt some online or delivery service will likely look for a balance, while maintaining their new online offerings.

“That may be important because it could take a long time for people to feel comfortable in fully returning to their old routines — there will be ongoing resistance,” he said. “Isolation has engendered a sense of fear and worry and I don’t think it will dissipate quickly.”

Whatever the post-pandemic world looks like, Klein said it’s not likely to be starkly different from what is happening now.

“We won’t see a big-bang solution,” he said. “There

is likely to be a gradual resumption, and even once the rules start to diminish, the behavioural patterns we have established over the last year will not disappear.”

Frederick Grouzet, associate professor of psychology at UVic, predicts a mixed bag of human behaviour post-pandemic — some will immediately try to go back to their normal lives, while others will face significant challenges.

“It’s always difficult to know what the long-lasting consequences will be and what changes will be permanent or temporary,” he said — particularly now, since this kind of disruption is unprecedented.

Grouzet said some people who have found the pandemic traumatic may struggle in its wake, while others will have used it as a catalyst for positive changes in their lives, both big and small.

He said he’s certain we will have forever changed the way we communicate, given the way technology has affected both personal and business communication, while improved video conferencing may have changed forever the business conference industry.

But as for fundamental change, Grouzet is less sure.

Humans are terrible at predicting the effect big events will have on them, he said — positive events often don’t make them as happy as they thought for as long as they hoped, while they end up getting through negative events they were convinced they would never survive.

“We adapt very quickly, which is good, which is why we survive a lot of things, including the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Because humans adapt quickly, he said, significant changes often don’t register as big moves.

Despite big plans to be part of societal changes, most people will focus on the effects on themselves, which tends to mean massive change gets put aside, he said.

“We cannot say nothing will change — for sure some will and have — but it may be not as much as some of us might have liked, or as noticeable as we want.”

Homer-Dixon said when the world came together to tackle the problem of creating vaccines, it gave us a taste of what it’s like to have a critical mass of people work together to make a fundamental change.

That’s the way to deal with pandemics and other massive problems in the future, he said — as a species instead of as individual countries.

“We need an attitudinal change. Like it or not, we can only deal with this kind of problem by developing some kind of global response that emphasizes our shared fate as a species,” he said.

“We’re not getting rid of this bug. It will be around for a long time.”