“When will things get back to normal?”

I’ve heard this phrase innumerable times since our world turned upside down on March 13th. I have said it myself, on more than one occasion.

The question is completely understandable. So many of us have had fundamental things we consider necessities to our happiness curtailed during this pandemic, and we are urgently awaiting any sign that our lives will return to some semblance of what they once were. Embracing our friends and loved ones. Gathering to celebrate, or to mourn. Cheering on your team. Going to work. Going to the theatre. Going to school.

Going anywhere.

Few of us, I think, could imagine how all of these things could disappear from our lives simultaneously- and yet they did.

So now, the single-minded focus of so many of us is: how long do we have to wait for things to operate as they once did, and what can we do to expedite that process?

There are, however, a minority of people who are enduring all the same hardships the rest of us are who are considering a different question. They are asking:

“Do we want things to go back to normal?”

Increasingly, I am asking this too.

There is no question in my mind about many fundamental aspects of life that I want to see return. You probably share my desire to once again gather with friends and loved ones, go out for coffee, go to work or attend a concert. I long for the time when we no longer treat each other like we are radioactive. It’s taking a psychological toll on me, and likely on you, too. Most of us are coping, but not thriving, in this strange set of circumstances. Some of us, understandably, are coping more than others, and the pandemic is making it hard to support each other.

But the Covid-19 crisis is bringing many aspects of our society into a sharper relief; things that were unacceptable before the pandemic hit that are still unacceptable now and will be tomorrow- and this moment could be a turning point if we stop to consider the way forward. At a time when we are drawing up plans to re-build a functioning society, should we not consider whether all aspects of that society are worth rebuilding?

In Canada, the emergency income program which was (in my view, wisely) introduced in response to the pandemic was actually, in some cases, more generous than our existing social assistance programs during a relative period of affluence. Worldwide, your chances of dying from the Covid-19 virus seem inextricably linked to your race and economic circumstances going into this crisis. Our elders in many parts of the world are dying at a terrifying rate in part because the conditions in which we force them to live are underfunded and badly administered. Women who live with the reality of domestic violence have seen their circumstances grow increasingly volatile during the lockdown. The list is very, very long.

On the one hand, you could argue that we don’t have the wherewithal to address these and other major challenges at a time when our economy has collapsed and most of us are facing unprecedented uncertainty. I would ask:
“If we don’t change it now, when will we?”

I am currently learning things every day-as an artist, a citizen and a human- that I could not have otherwise. Why waste it all rebuilding something built on inequality on blindness? Why not make this suffering matter?

One day, I would like to be able tell future generations that the Covid-19 era brought great hardship, but it also brought about some of the most progressive policies since Medicare. A guaranteed annual income. Renewed mental health supports for all ages. A new respect for and engagement with our elders. It is all possible, if we have the courage to seize this moment.

Ken Schwartz