Who Wants a ‘Return to Normal’? 

Let’s put consumerism on hold even when the pandemic subsides

By Douglas Bovee

Who wants a “return to normal”?

Not me — though I understand the desire for stability and predictability.

I have found the frequently uttered phrase “return to normal” unhelpful and aggravating. I preface my remarks by noting, as an amateur scientist and still practicing, semi-retired physician, that I am extremely fortunate to be healthy, housed, working and connected. And my family and closest friends are similarly fortunate.  

I suspect that the “normal” that most people in this country are thinking of when saying these words is: the American behavior to work, then consume — that is, earn, then consume good food and beverage in social settings as well as spend on entertainment and travel. I have found a silver lining in the pandemic to be the recognition that life can be joyful and appreciated without relentless consumption.

One of my greatest moments of joy this year was walking in the rain that heralded the end of the 11 days of smoke which engulfed our community in September 2020. Our home, planet Earth, is not an unlimited resource supplier for us humans. The consumption patterns of the past were clearly unsustainable for living on this wonderful and fragile planet, and “there is no planet B.”

The fires and smoke were intense local evidence of the effects of this consumption on our home. The reduction in carbon emissions over the last year is a beautiful outgrowth of the pandemic.  I am hoping that we have learned that we can continue to reduce our carbon emissions and still find joy in living. “Return to normal,” to unbridled consumption of things and entertainment? I think not.

Probably the human interaction that I most miss is hugging my family and friends.

That is the activity that I most look forward to returning to — hopefully soon. I do not miss shaking hands.  And I think we have learned that we can meet and honor and respect strangers without shaking hands. As we are all learning about universal precautions to reduce the spread of disease, we are learning that shaking hands with a stranger is not necessary and can incidentally transmit disease. We need not return to that “normal.”

I have not met anyone who likes wearing masks. And we have, mostly, adjusted (at least temporarily) to life with masks, in order to protect ourselves and others from the spreading of the coronavirus and other pathogens. Note that the dreaded, dual epidemics of COVID-19 and influenza have not materialized (so far) — likely due to our nearly universal donning of face masks and avoidance of close gatherings.

While the world has quickly learned much about this virus, there is more to learn. I have noticed that many of the people I have come in contact with over the last year are more tolerant of the unknown. People seem to be truly learning about epidemiology and public health and the scientific process of investigation into the unknown — another “silver lining.” I see that as mature growth of we humans.   

This pandemic is a wake-up call. There certainly will be more pandemics to come as long as our population continues to grow, people crowd together and people interact with many wild or captured animals. I see no value in returning to our previous naiveté and, yes, blindness to the reality of new pathogens in our environment. They will continue to evolve and mutate and infect us in the future.  

Hopefully, we have learned, and will not be caught so unprepared next time. We will be able to quickly don our masks, increase our social distance and hand washing, and reduce our gathering sizes. Hopefully, we will have better building air circulation and filtration systems, more robust and stable public health, an improved health care system that serves all of us and have all the personal protective equipment we need at the onset of the next pandemic. 

Again, I see no value in returning to those days of ignorance and inadequate health system resources.

I understand that this past year has been very difficult and miserable for many. I do not wish that to continue for anyone. And, like many people, I long for some of the aspects of the life we knew like stable jobs, kids in school, parties, dinner out, concerts as well as theater outings, sporting events and live (rather than virtual) meetings. We will get there due to the brilliance and diligence of many who are creating vaccines, improved testing and treatments.

 And we can continue to grow as a species taking better care of ourselves and our planet. We need not return to that “normal” of the past. 

Dr. Douglas Bovee is a semi-retired physician in Eugene. He is active in the community addressing opioid dependency and homelessness.