There are inflection points, moments in the arc of history, when things happen and nothing is ever the same again. These moments are fundamental shifts in the way things are, what we call “the new normal,” which ends up being all of the things we learn to live with or tolerate or do without, whether good or bad.
Think back to the way life was on September 10, 2001. Our view of security and surveillance on that Monday was such that we as a nation would have scarcely tolerated what has become the standard operating procedures at our airports, stadiums, and other public and private venues. We certainly wouldn’t have tolerated the data-gathering on our routine communications by the NSA that’s now par for the course.
It’s true that some of what we now accept as normal is purely a product of the technologies created since 2001, but I’m really talking about our entire concept of privacy and what constitutes proper boundaries that should not be crossed—all of that changed in a single 24-hour period on a late summer afternoon nearly two decades ago. We gave up a lot in the name of security and the need to feel safe (think Patriot Act) and there’s no way to put that toothpaste back in the tube.
My point: The 9/11 terrorist attacks were just such an inflection point, a crisis that shocked us, distracted us, scared us and set the stage for a fundamental shift in the way we lived our lives. We didn’t ask all of the questions we might have, nor did we insist on the type of safeguards we might have required had we had time to think during those autumn months when we were trying desperately to get back to normal.
Fast forward to the financial crisis of 2008-2009, what history now refers to as the “Great Recession.” It wasn’t a single shocking event as 9/11 was, but rather a few grim weeks when the experts were talking about the economy going over a cliff and a complete meltdown of the global financial system. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, journalist Ann Lowrey talked about the impact of the Great Recession, pointing out that it “left scars in terms of housing and wealth—with the rich getting richer and the poor recovering far less, if at all.”
According to Lowrey’s research, what came out of the financial crisis for many was less access to credit, more struggle buying a house, greater difficulty financing an education, nonexistent cash cushions for emergencies, and more foreclosures and bankruptcies. I’m not an economist or historian, but the new normal coming out of the Great Recession seems to be stark inequality.
What have we lost or given away as a result of the seismic shift that took place in 2008 and early 2009? My guess is the death of the American Dream and the placing of the middle class on life-support. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the opioid epidemic seized this country on the heels of the Great Recession, just as I don’t think it is a coincidence that some of the most notable increases in mortality in recent years has been among middle-aged white men between the ages of 45 and 54, according to research from Angus Deaton and Anne Case of Princeton University.
What will we lose or give away in the name of COVID-19? It’s too soon to tell, but it is worth thinking about because things will never quite be the same again. Will we have some new type of medical surveillance? Will people in quarantine have to submit to some new type of tracking? What will become of the debate about vaccines?
This crisis will impact many areas beyond just healthcare whether the push to go cashless, remote workplaces, the food supply, what constitutes “essential,” and just about every corner of the economy. The question comes down to what monumental changes will be instituted in the name of preparing for the next global pandemic and will the changes be acceptable to us? If nothing else, we know we’re in unchartered territory because beyond first responders and medical personnel, the real heroes of this crisis are grocery store clerks—something to ponder as we stay at home. n