Why there’s no way back to 2019 normalcy

Two years into a pandemic, we're yearning for normalcy. But our world has changed so much that we simply can't go back to the old normal.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Two years later, there’s a lot of debate about a return to normalcy. As we approach a new normal (if there is one), we need to understand that there’s no way back to our pre-pandemic, 2019 way of life.

It is, of course, obvious that 24 months have passed and we can’t go back in time. Much has changed, and now there’s a new war raging in Europe. It will bring us further away from our pre-pandemic life, and we’ll look into the details of that in a sequel post later this month.

It’s almost as obvious that we’ve added a new disease to our global society that isn’t going away anytime soon, and probably never will. This alone changes many things, even if we decide to live with a relatively high level of collective illness and disease burden, compared to other infectious diseases like the flu. It will cost us something, and figuring out a socio-economic equilibrium of costs and benefits will take some time.

Experts like Nicholas Christakis predict that normality isn’t coming back until 2024, and this is nothing new for many readers of this blog. Halfway between 2020 to 2024, we now realise how many second- and third-order effects the pandemic has already triggered. There’s no way to undo these effects. This game has to play out, and again – it will take time.

Second-order effects

Let’s, for example, look at the return of inflation. The jury is still out on whether it is back to stay for a longer period or not. But for now, we have to deal with rising prices and the end of cheap money. Consumers will get less stuff for their cash, or have to pay more to get the same. Many of them will demand and often get higher wages. This may lead to even higher prices. And so on. Right now, we can’t go back to the world where inflation and interest rates are low. This world no longer exists, and the war in Ukraine will further fuel inflation.

We can understand inflation as a second-order effect of the pandemic. The immediate effect was the disruption of supply chains, which reintroduced scarcity in many ways. And what’s scarce will become more expensive. Energy prices are soaring. Another immediate effect of the pandemic was the ginormous amount of money poured over our economies. This money needs to go somewhere, and wherever it goes, prices are rising. That’s another driver for inflation, and we haven’t even talked about climate change and policies that lead to higher prices for non-renewable energy.

Let’s take stock. We now live in a different world with regards to

  • healthcare,
  • economy,
  • money,
  • energy,
  • supply chains.

None of these can simply return to the 2019 state of affairs. For all of them, it will take time to figure out a new equilibrium. Of course, it won’t be a static equilibrium – it never was in the first place.

But that’s not all.

Third-order effects

The world of work has changed a lot. Behaviours and habits are different now than they used to be. This applies not only to work and the office, but also to retail, consumption, leisure, entertainment, and family life. Not all of this change, perhaps none of it, will snap back to its previous state all of a sudden. Once habits are broken, new patterns start to emerge. After two years, the fabric of our lives has changed profoundly.

Here, we are deep in the realm of cultural shifts. This is not about the cold, hard facts of life, like healthcare, money, or supply chains. Rather, we need to look at preferences, choices, changes of behaviour and habits. For example, the great resignation is exactly this: people voting with their feet, moving away from their old lives, quitting work they no longer want to do. For now, the great resignation hasn’t yet reached Germany. But that’s no guarantee it won’t.

Because we now live in a world with different health issues, new economic challenges, rising inflation, flaky supply chains, as well as new patterns of work, shopping, amusement, and family life, people will further adjust their behaviour, habits, preferences, and choices. Inevitably, this will lead to third-order effects of the pandemic. Its aftermath will leave a huge mark on our cultures. But we won’t recognise every change as corona-related, since it becomes harder and harder to tell.

Back to normalcy bias

Human beings always adapt to change, even if they don’t like it. The delicate interplay of scarcity and inflation will force adaption. However, not everyone will attribute this to the pandemic. And rightly so, since the pandemic only accelerated and exacerbated trends and change that were there before. (In some aspects the war will do the same.) There’s no way to reverse this process, either.

It’s our own biases that prevent us from recognising the situation. For example, our normalcy bias lets us pretend that everything is fine (or normal) until the very last moment, or even until it’s too late. Optimism bias tricks us into believing that our personal risk is lower than it really is. We’re very bad at understanding exponential phenomena. And finally, the prevention paradox leads us to believe that certain measures were useless, just because they prevented or at least mitigated a disaster. (Before the pandemic, we used to call this a self-defeating prophecy.)

There also is a communicative process of talking new normalcies into being, and it’s called resilience. We convince ourselves that everything is normal, even if the new normal only slightly resembles the old normal. That’s how we as human beings deal with change, disruptive or not. We’ll get used to a new normal. But it won’t be the old normal. Plus, it will take at least another two years, if we agree with Nicholas Christakis.

I’m pretty sure we’ll eventually find a new way of life. It’s just not going to happen this year.

Postscriptum: I wrote this piece before the situation in Ukraine escalated into war. It seems to turn into an even bigger systemic shock than the pandemic. We’ll look into that in another post.

Last updated on August 9, 2022.