The New Normal

food imageThis week where I live, as well as in many other places all over the world, daily life has been dramatically altered. COVID 19 is in the early stages of community transmission in Canada, and infection rates are on track to be similar to those seen in other hard-hit parts of the world, where widespread infections have put critical health infrastructure on the brink of collapse. 

Like many other people, I have found myself spending much more time than normal in my own home. Ordinarily my partner and I work outside of the home. We are lucky to have jobs at post-secondary institutions with flexible hours, so sometimes working at home is normal for us. Ordinarily, our two daughters (aged 2 and 4) are in preschool. 

We are now all home indefinitely. My partner and I are still working online. None of us are sick. We have enough food for a few weeks, but are also still able to pop out to our local grocery store (only one block away) if we desperately need something. 

Our economic lives have been recentred on the home, and our home is more disrupted than usual because all of our routines have been thrown up in the air.

Raworth’s Economic Model: The Doughnut

Quite coincidentally, at the time of this shift, I have been reading Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017). 

Raworth argues that a new economic model is required for the 21st century; one that overturns the reckless pursuit of GDP growth at the expense of all else, and focuses on a more humane economic goal: that all people can live with dignity and comfort within the resource capabilities of the planet. Raworth’s recommendations about slowing down (or even stopping or reversing) growth trends in order to decrease our impact on the environment, coupled with her proposal that more must be done to disrupt wealth concentration and hoarding, are particularly prescient today, with most governments finding their hands forced to address calls for widespread financial support as many workers face extreme precarity in the conditions of the pandemic economy. 

Notably, a recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute (13-14 March 2020), found that 87% of Canadians polled trust their public institutions, such a health authorities. This is a strong reversal of the kind of distrust of government that has been characteristic of the rise of populism in the political right. In a crisis, it would seem that citizens want institutions and experts. We are not so quick to dismiss the “elitism” of experts when our very lives are on the line.  

There is no question that some aspects of our daily lives and the ways that we interact with neighbours, markets, and institutions will be altered at the end of all this. Whether the economy is simply paused for three weeks while we attempt to “flatten the curve” through “social distancing” or if we have a much longer disruption in store, the reality that for the first time in recent history a majority of the active workforce has pivoted away from the public sphere and back into the home will surely alter expectations around daily rhythms, rates of productivity, and expectations of public and private divides in our everyday work lives. 

Prime Minster Trudeau has suggested that the initial few weeks of travel restrictions, social distancing, and business closures that we have currently been asked to endure could in fact stretch on for months. 

A recent report from researchers at the Imperial College of London suggests that our current social distancing measures may need to be enacted regularly over the next 18 months, when a vaccine is expected to be ready for circulation. According to the researchers, in order to prevent a catastrophic pandemic, extreme social distancing would need to be implemented every time ICU admissions began to spike. According to this model, we would drift in and out of social distancing measures. The model indicates that these measures would need to be in place roughly 2/3rds of the time. So, two months at home (no school, no office, no restaurants), and one month back to “normal.” 

The point that the researches, and a number of other commentators are hoping to drive home, is that there is a new normal now. We are not going back to the way things were prior to COVID 19. 

Mixed amongst public expressions of anxiety about these vast economic shifts are other more hopeful political positions. In the days immediately following enhanced social distancing measures, UBI Works, an advocacy organization pushing for universal basic income in Canada, circulated petitions widely in order to push Parliament to implement emergency basic income. So far, Parliament has opted to work through existing social programmes, such as the child tax benefit, GST rebates, and EI. However, it is also evident that these programmes, linked as they are to a traditional economy, are not sufficient to cover the gig-economy and service industry workers who often do not qualify for supports like those offered through EI. Broad calls for some kind of Universal Basic Income, are increasingly coming from all parts of the political spectrum.

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In the immediate days following the escalation of social-distancing and self-isolation measures, the internet has been filled with all kinds of recommendations about how to structure your at home workday, how to distract/entertain/teach your children, how to cook healthy family meals with only non-perishables, how to disinfect, how to stay sane and connected in the absence of your physical networks. 

Writing about Feminist Economics for the Guardian, Lucia Graves argues that the burden for this shift to domesticity will, predictably, fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. Mothers whose careers were only made possible by extended childcare services outside of the home, and in many instances already burdened with the “second shift” now find themselves at home with children trying to somehow telecommute.

My own personal experience has been that, with both my children and my partner home, all of my professional activities (save for writing this essay) have been pushed aside. While my husband struggles to find a quiet place to continue working from home (admittedly, it isn’t a fantastically productive time for him either), I have resigned myself to entire days spent entertaining my young children, cooking meals, and chipping away at other domestic projects. 

While the articles presenting new ways to be productive from home, or advertising technologies to make the new socially-distanced workplace function, are simply laughable to me (have kids, can’t work), I have found the abundance of domestic hacks that the internet offers up to be entertaining and comforting at a time when I have been thrust into more domesticity than I reasonably ever expected. Full-time homemaker was truly not the job I signed up for.

Over the coming weeks, I hope to feature conversations with individuals who are living and working on many sides of the quarantine curtain. From parents in the home to frontline health works, and all members of the community in between. Please continue the conversation with me.