Why the ‘new normal’ is not normal at all

(video published on June 5, 2020)

With the Cabinet Decision due later today on whether New Zealand will move to Alert Level 1, people will be able continue or start preparations for what that will mean for their lives and businesses. The move means that life will start to get back to something very much like ‘normal’, aside for maintaining border restrictions. 

But now we have been through Alert Levels 3, 4, 3, and then 2, how ‘normal’ will Alert Level 1 feel? Much of this will depend on your journey through the previous Alert Levels, how you’ve been affected by those restrictions, and how well you have managed to adapt. For all New Zealanders, the success at first managing the spread, and then suppressing the incidence of COVID-19 in the propagation has been remarkably successful. But for some, control over the secondary impacts of these public health measures will have been taken completely out of their hands. This is likely to have been the case if you worked in the international tourism industry, or the many businesses that indirectly serve that market. Food suppliers and retailers, and other service industries will also have been dramatically affected.

For many who employ others through their businesses, this will have been a worrying time, as well as for the employees who worked in these businesses. For others, asked to work in essential services such as health staff, cleaners, and supermarket workers to name but a few, it will have been a time of significant worry; trying to earn an income, as well as managing personal risks of exposure to the coronavirus, as well as maintaining practices to reduce the risk of unwittingly transmitting the virus to others at home or in other community surroundings. For others, just managing daily tasks, with children, other family and household members, getting food and health care: all this may have been challenging in their own ways. And still others may have come to value some respite from their usual, perhaps unhealthy, ways of living during the ‘lockdown’ period. 

To sum up, not everyone’s experience will have been the same. 

There are some pointers that a return to Level 1 won’t simply be a return back to ‘normal’ life. It won’t even be a ‘new normal’. At least we hope not with the predicted further job losses to come. We wouldn’t want that to become the ‘new normal’ at all. Neither would we wish to extend out the number of schools that have reported much lower attendance rates than usual, particularly if parents are worried that their children will catch COVID-19 if they return to school. 

And whereas before people may have experienced FOMO, or a Fear of Missing Out, anxiety about life after lockdown is now showing up for some people as FOGO, or Fear of Going Out. 

Even though ‘lockdown’ maybe have been incredibly hard for people to comply with, there’s no doubt that for many, if did offer that increased sense of safety.  At it’s core, FOGO is about the balance people are experiencing between that sense of safety, and the uncertainty they feel about the world outside of their safe spaces, and how that safety will be managed ‘out there’. 

Over the past few weeks we’ve been deluged with information from Government and media telling us to stay inside as much as possible to control the spread of coronavirus. We had to figure out whether it was safe to go for a walk or a run, to go to the shop to get food, how to make sure we stayed far enough away apart from other people. We had to adapt to a new way of life – not just for a few days, but for weeks at a time. 

This is where FOGO may have been born. In a very real sense, its very closely tied to a threat. We feel at risk of perhaps being infected by the virus, and we feel vulnerable. So we take steps to protect ourselves. And one way in which that has become embedded in our behaviour in through staying at home. 

The thing is, the world that we we are re-entering means that we have to balance the risks between becoming perhaps overly concerned about catching COVID-19 and Level 1, and the effects that the pandemic will have on wider society in the next few months and years. People’s livelihoods depend upon economic activity starting to pick up again. 

So, perhaps yes, there needs to be a recalibration of risk, if we include risk to cover not just being of catching Covid-19, but of the other societal impacts – including your safety behaviour becoming so entrenched, that it becomes even harder to change in the longer term. And multiply that by thousands people being fearful of going out right now, and you can see how this can have a big impact on society as a whole. 

The key to managing all this this to remain flexible. To be able to stay home when disease spread is a real risk, but then to be able to emerge and re-engage with society when those disease risks become manageable for most people. 

The New Zealand that we encounter at Level 1 won’t stay like that for long. Rather than thinking of it as a ‘new normal’, with the predictability that this implies, it’s probably better to prepare ourselves for more change, as businesses and organisations start to really grapple with what life may look like, with a series of changes that may follow after that over a number of months and years. 

How do I deal with FOGO?

We know some things about a specific type of phobia called agoraphobia that might help us understand things a little better here. Agoraphobia is a reaction to an actual or anticipated situation that is perceived as difficult or impossible to escape. This also then gives us a clue as to what we might be able to do about our FOGO. 

If your agoraphobia isn’t too overwhelming, then it’s important that you face your fear by going out often, so that the fear doesn’t grow. The more often we let a fear stop us from doing something, the harder it is to do it the next time. The key is to feel the fear and don’t let it stop you doing things. As the saying goes: Feel that fear, and do it anyway.

If your agoraphobia is stronger, you can ask family/whānau and friends to come with you when you go out. Let them know in advance that you might have to wait for a panic attack to pass, or even go home so that you feel less pressured or embarrassed if that happens. That’s OK. It might take a few goes before this starts working for you. But don’t get discouraged. Try to stay out for a bit longer each time you try to go out. Even just getting used to being outdoors again is a step in the right direction.

More generally, we humans can find change difficult. Being asked to change direction again after being asked to stay inside might take some getting used to – so, places might feel a bit more empty than usual for a while yet. Mind you, those people are adapt quickly are likely to throng to the places that are actually open for business, perhaps making them feel more crowded than usual even. 

And that can be off-putting if its your first foray back into re-engaging with society. So be aware of those possible false impressions too and try to take that into account,. As we start to open up more widely, people can start to spread out a bit more naturally again out in open society – but expect that to take a bit of time as we start to adapt to this changed reality. 

You don’t suddenly have to throw yourself out into the deep end. It is a gradual process and they can do it at their own pace. We humans are social beings –  but we also have our own needs for safety and to feel like we have individual control too. 

At the moment, being part of a group where we feel like we have to give up our control of safety in order to that might feel like a step too far. That’s ok. You need to be both part of a group and an individual in your own right to be happy – so take your time. 

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