The coronavirus pandemic has transformed our lives. The lockdowns have forced us to change how we socialise, how we shop and work. But as vaccination rates rise, parts of the world are opening up.
One question that often comes to mind is ‘when will life return to normal?’ No one can really give a sure shot answer.
However, this will not be the first time that a pandemic has changed the world. Historically, crisis have revolutionised societies fuelling technological advancements and kick-starting social change. For instance, in the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out a third of the Britain's population. Since there were fewer workers left, new technological advancements were made in order to use less labour from workers such as the printing press.
Similarly, around us, we are noticing a gradual change ever since the pandemic hit us last year. While local economies faltered, healthcare systems strained, people continually lost loved ones unexpectedly, we managed to survive and move forward. We found new ways to keep the ball rolling like remote working i.e. Work from home.
While the work from home model wasn’t a new one, it instantly gained popularity anew. “With work from home routine I felt like I could do extra work because I was cutting on commute time. There was no fatigue from travelling so I could do more writing and work that I couldn’t during the old routines,” says Nisma Chauhan, a Karachi-based journalist. “Before the lockdown, I didn’t really have time to sit down and think about what I’m doing. We were usually meeting with a lot of people even some unnecessary ones just for the sake of socialising. Now, there is a semblance, less chaos and I feel like I made a better work-life balance. I could take time to work out, meditate and do more things apart from work. Moreover, I could take a proper lunch break, which I couldn’t really do at the office. And this is something that I would like to keep in my ‘new normal’.”
“Administration wise, the good thing was that we had an opportunity to restructure and analyse things within our organisation and make it better,” reveals Taha Tahir, National Director Special Olympics Pakistan. “Since we were meeting virtually, the national meet-ups increased and we were able to coordinate much better. We were also able to virtually engage athletes, families and coaches. We came up with different innovative ways to function efficiently.”
While this home office setup had its perks, many struggled to find productivity, given the nature of their work. Zainab Sheikh is a 27-year-old working woman has recently returned to office after working from home for the past year. “I felt that we were really laid back in our routines during lockdowns and got lazy over a period of time. When you go to the office, there is a kind of liberty that comes with it. With the lockdown, however, you start to feel cramped at home. There is frustration and more fights because you can’t have the space you used to. And given our desi society, privacy is an alien concept and you find it being violated frequently,” laments Zainab.
While many of the offices were able to function efficiently while operating from homes, there were some that absolutely required a physical presence. “The nature of my work requires us to be present physically since we deal with co-curricular activities for special children,” highlights Taha. “The lockdown impacted us in that regard. While we were conducting online courses and campaigns, but it is hard to manage. However, we did introduce Special Olympics programmes like ‘Fit 5’ and ‘School of Strength’ to engage our community. Despite internet and electricity issues in Pakistan, the teachers and coaches were able to stay connected through WhatsApp and Facebook.” However, Taha adds that the physical activity aspect did suffer. “It’s hard to monitor special needs children virtually. We continue to partner with like-minded organisations and reach out to the people living in underserved areas. Also, when it comes to children with special needs, they need to have an outlet such as sports and arts. Otherwise, it can be really hard for the parents to handle them.”
Pakistan was among the first countries in the world to institute widespread school closures as a result of Covid-19. And while school closures had been effective in supporting efforts at social distancing, there were serious consequences for schooling and learning.
“During the initial lockdowns, it was really hard to manage since everything was closed. The children were home, there were no interactions and no kind of entertainment, which caused a lot of frustration,” shares Marzia, a housewife and mother of two young children. “While we learnt new ways to teach children through online classes, there were some struggles that came with it. There were times when there were technical issues made the task frustrating, and since my children are young – 9 and 6 – they would find it difficult to understand the content. It’s hard to teach children at home and they don’t have the same learning environment that they do at schools. However, while I am concerned about the safety of my children, I do like the idea of children going to school on alternate days or for reduced hours. This way it doesn’t put a lot of burden on them and maybe they would learn better at school.”
These problems did not just persist in young age groups, but were also found in higher education as well. Studies have highlighted the impact on psychological well-being of the most exposed groups, including women, children, college students, and health workers, who are more likely to develop post-traumatic, stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of distress.
“Juggling my studies with lockdown was really stressful. We were already really frustrated and the constant stress of the cases going up was only deteriorating my mental health. Online classes and online exams were really tough to get through with so many distractions at home. Not many teachers were able to use it properly and neither were some students. The stress of my studies and my career going downhill compelled me to take two semesters off to give my mind a break,” tells Zunaira Haider, a final year business undergrad. “I thought about everything that I took for granted, all the hangouts I said no to and thinking about that was getting me depressed. I kept asking myself, if we would ever get back to normal? I’m generally very sensitive to things, I did have a minor form of OCD but that flared up once the pandemic happened. I used to go to university in my van. It’s hard to imagine now that how freely I would be seated in the vehicle, be able to hug my friends and family without worrying about being infected or infecting someone else.”
Lockdowns also compelled people to rethink their priorities and really focus on things that are good for them. “I do feel that people are now practising good hygiene like they should. For instance, just a mere washing of hands is now so important which many took for granted. I am more of an introvert, so I was happy to avoid going to gatherings when I wasn’t feeling it. And I don’t mind wearing a face mask, it makes it easier for me since I don’t have to do makeup. Other than that, I am glad to have spent this time with my family despite the fights we may have had during this period. I grew apart from a lot of friends but I found the real ones among them too,” adds Zunaira.
It’s tempting to wonder when exactly the Covid-19 pandemic will end once and for all and when things will return to normal. The fact is, it probably won’t go back to the old normal, but we can achieve a new kind of normality, even if this brave new world differs in fundamental ways. But the question is, ‘are we ready to go back?’
“I can’t wait to get back to work,” exclaims Nisma. “When you are at an office, especially if it is a newsroom sort of a setup, there is a lot more productivity. You are pumping in ideas and we are a lot more productive. Even though some people believe that there is more productivity at home, but I don’t agree with that. While it really depends on the nature of your work, I do like the idea of flexible timings. For me, I could work four days in the office and two days from home, which would actually make a huge difference.”
“I don’t think I can ever go back to being as carefree (read: careless) as I was. I am not ready to indulge in gatherings and weddings (especially over 100 people) any time soon. What if we get infected despite being vaccinated? My old routine didn’t really allow for a ‘me-time’ which the new normal has given me. I want to be able to prioritise that. I feel more productive now and I don’t think I am ready to go back just yet,” shares Zunaira.
“I don’t think that we can fully embrace the old routine, it has to be merged with the new. I don’t feel comfortable meeting new people and I don’t know if it’s polite to ask if one is vaccinated. I did see people meeting up but that has just heightened my paranoia, especially after these people got Covid. I’m very familiar with this new normal and this routine is fine for me. I feel the major difference comes with the number of SOPs and precautions one has to follow,” describes Zainab. “For me, old normal means one is not being mindful of their health. I don’t mind going back to work because everyone there vaccinated, so I’m comfortable in that environment. Even though, working from home is easier, there is no commuting, but I’d like to go and meet my colleagues.”
“According to me, the good thing that happened was that there was a fixed time for offices and markets. I feel like those timings are better. Even for social gatherings like weddings, there is no more of a concept of a barat coming at 11 p.m. or even at midnight. We were really saving on time since we knew everything will close at 10 p.m. so one has to wrap up before that. With this sort of a time limit I feel people are more productive, and I hope we can carry on with that,” concludes Marzia.