Photo credit: Carla J Roth

ONE OF THE oft-repeated catch phrases from the earliest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in the wake of the first lockdown in March 2020 (which was a huge shock to all of us), was “we can’t return to the ‘old normal’.”

There was a palpable sense, for a time, that something had changed fundamentally with the arrival of a deadly virus and the enormous personal, social, commercial and political upheaval that followed in its wake.

But while, in 2023, there is still talk of the economic disruption caused or worsened by Covid – continuing supply chains issues (exacerbated by Brexit in the UK), disappeared businesses, the change in office cultures and the shift among some towards working from home, the fact that only 50 per cent of passengers have returned to rail travel, the deepening crises in health and social care and more – there is also huge sense of forgetfulness, of denial and of the resumption of old patterns of thinking and behaviour.

Of course the millions who lost family and friends – as well as, in some cases, jobs and livelihoods – cannot forget that. But one of the patterns of response to individual and collective trauma (which the pandemic and a series of lockdowns that shut people away from each other and masked multiple human tragedies undoubtedly was) is to try to go back to life as we fondly remember it, or to suppress unpleasant thoughts with distraction.

A continuing, quiet crisis

It feels as if this is how it is for a significant majority of people. Mask-wearing in crowded public spaces (though still recommended) has more or less disappeared. In 2022 more people suffered or died from Covid-related illness than in the middle of the previous year, but it is hardly mentioned. The experience of disabled, sick and vulnerable people has been mostly marginalised or ignored. Enquiries into government response have subsided, been sidelined, and disappeared into the news backwater. Little is said about £37 billion spent on test and trace of the huge private contracting and Tory donor scandals around PPE. Regular ONS infection data is under threat.The UK government has stopped offering vaccines to the vast majority of the population.

Yet Long Covid continues to impact between one million and two million people. Covid vaccines are belatedly to be offered to vulnerable babies and children in UK. There has been a battle over proper treatment for people with learning disabilities. And there is still inadequate action on patent waivers to enable global vaccination, funding for research and development of the next generation of vaccines and antivirals, and the crisis in the NHS and social care.

Meanwhile, the virus continues to mutate and spread in other, poorer parts of the world; there are thousands of Covid orphans in the USA, but little response; in Japan the weekly average of cases is rising again; India logged 6,155 fresh Covid cases in a day recently, as the active caseload climbed to 31,194; states are having to reimpose curbs; China anxiously awaits new data;  variant XBB.1.16 and its subtype is mutating further, surface contamination has re-emerged as a ‘balance’ concern and so on.

However, despite all of this, on the surface, very many people across Britain seem to have returned to previous patterns of life with little apparent questioning. So what did “no return to the ‘old normal’” mean? Was it ever more than a passing slogan? It is important, I think, to distinguish between general impressions and the fabric of our everyday lives. I know many people, me included, who have taken time to re-evaluate what matters most in life, what priorities should prevail, and what changes should be made. In a culture of acquisition and busyness, many have rediscovered the foundational importance of people and relationships, of the natural world, of art and music, of the activities and possibilities that feed the soul and give meaning to life.

While there has been no great return to religion, and while institutional failures in terms of mental health and care continue, more than a few people have found themselves reflecting more on these issues. Those over 50 seem more likely to be looking to leave work and focus on other, more personal concerns and preoccupations. Maybe there has been more personal and interpersonal consideration and reconsideration going on than we think?

A shift in culture and discourse

Perhaps the real question is how quiet personal revaluation can help to shift the culture and discourse of public and political life, which feels even more divided and toxic in many respects, following outbreaks of human solidarity and compassion during the height of Covid. For that to be possible we need more spaces in our media, our interactions and our shared daily lives for simple joys and pleasures (which do not involve obsessive consumption), for hospitality and giving (of time and affection, rather than things), for reconnection with our environments (urban and rural), for life beyond money and paid labour (where that is possible, which is for far too few)… and, yes, for attention to mending the deeply dysfunctional relationships we have forged between human and economic cultures and the natural world.

It is those latter challenges which lie at the heart of the climate emergency (still treated as if it was a future rather than a present problem by too many), the massive erosions in planetary biodiversity, and the conditions which make future pandemics quite likely rather simply quite possible.

On a personal note, back in 2020, during lockdown, I began to work with friend and collaborator Gerry Hassan – now Professor of Social Change at Glasgow Caledonian University – on a book which we published at the end of that year called Scotland After the Virus (Luath Press). One of the reviews of this book, by critic and commentator Joyce McMillan, writing in The Scotsman newspaper, has been republished here.

Our idea at the time was precisely to create fresh space for reflection and reconsideration. The book features art, poetry and short stories, as well as chapters on culture, society, spirituality, environment, politics and economics as they are or might be affected and transfigured by the possibility of a more transformative and hopeful ‘after the virus’.

It has to be said that Scotland After the Virus, one of the very first books of its kind (but also, ironically, the one of the last, it seems) did not produce an enormous reaction, here in Scotland or anywhere else. But those who did respond were touched deeply, and a number of the writers and contributors told us that it was often a significant moment to have that chance to unpack feelings, responses and thoughts.

It would be wrong to say that Covid has not changed the way many of us look at ourselves, others, and our lives. It has, and for some there are gains as well as the enormous and irreparable losses that too many suffered. But collectively it feels as if talk of the need for a ‘new normal’ was just that. An instinctive reaction, a vernal gesture, a vague hope, a nod in the right direction.

Covid will come into public focus again, to some extent at least, on 25 April 2023, when the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Preliminary Hearing (module three: Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience) resumes. Boosters are also being rolled out, though in a limited way. The campaign to beat the pandemic, Covid Action UK (formally Zero Covid) and Covid Action Scotland also continue to press doggedly for, among other measures, a Vaccines Plus strategy aimed at eliminating community transmission of the virus. But if change is to happen beyond the deadening grip of the ‘old normal’, a further public re-awakening is necessary, and that can and should start in small and sustainable ways which we can all be part of.

This article is part of Ekklesia’s Pandemic Humility and Hope’ series, launched to coincide with the third anniversary of the first Covid lockdown on 23 March 2020. See also Everyday Sacrament: Visual Meditations in an Age of Pandemic (review), Scotland After the Virus (review), Recovering a sense of the scared in lockdown, and ‘The pandemic: an issue of life and death’.


© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. His new book, Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story, is due for publication in the summer of 2023. His columns can be found here (and archived ones here). Twitter: @simonbarrow