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06.05.2020 Feature Article

COVID-19: The Unknown Assailant That Interrupted and Changed Our “Normal” World

COVID-19:  The Unknown Assailant That Interrupted and Changed Our “Normal” World
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“This too shall pass! For the battle is the Lord’s. May God bless us all, and our homeland Ghana, and make her great and strong. I thank you for your attention.” These were the last statements of the president of Ghana, His Excellency, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo in his eighth address on the novel coronavirus pandemic. Just as he was about ending, my wife interrupted with the question; “when are things going to return to normal?” I could not give her a definite answer instantly but the thoughts on her question inspired this write-up.

In the midst of this pandemic as our regular lifestyles are interrupted, we all like my wife crave the calm of normality. A return to the way things used to be; our familiar routine lives. We begin to have that nostalgic feeling of hugging and shaking our friends happily, eating and laughing heartily with colleagues at our favourite restaurant, going to church to worship and dance to the melodious tunes of our favourite gospel songs. It’s tempting to wonder when things will return to normal, but the question is will things return to normal, the old normal we knew?

What does “normal” really mean, anyway?

The Oxford Learners Dictionary defines normal as usual, or ordinary; what you would expect. The Mariam-Webster dictionary defines normal as ‘conforming to a type, standard or regular pattern. Normal therefore is a set standard, regular or the usual model that we do not deviate from. By these definitions, Ghanaians were living their normal life; shaking hands and hugging, in fact it was considered anti-social and a sign of pride to meet a friend and not extend a hand of greeting. We even considered sneezing in public a ‘blessing.’

People went to work, restaurants and pubs and places of worship not being bothered by special arrangements or ‘social distancing’. Though we had complained for years about our fragile health system, we were still ‘managing’ since those in power decided not to do anything about it. Technology integration in education and remote learning were not a subject for discussion when we had accessibility, quality of education and learner and teacher truancy to deal with.

We were awaken from the slumber of ‘normalcy’ when Ghana recorded its first COVID-19 case on March 12, 2020. What started as a ‘mysterious pneumonia’ in Wuhan-China has now evolved into a deadly and devastating global pandemic. The origin of this deadly virus remains a mystery. It has become a subject of heated debate, conspiracy theories and controversies. Some scientists say it came from bats sold in Wuhan animal market to pangolins then to human beings. Others claim the virus was created from ‘Wuhan Institute of Virology’ where it was either accidentally or deliberately unleashed on human beings. In fact, it is an unknown assailant that has put the world in confusion.

This unknown assailant has greatly affected the world we knew in less than six months.

Nearly half of the world’s population have been placed under confinement and lockdown with those allowed to move around ordered to wear a face mask. The global airspace has almost been closed and all international travels halted; a situation that economists have said will cost global airlines a loss of over $312 Billion. The COVID-19 pandemic has halted all key national and international social, sporting, educational events and courses and some postponed indefinitely.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns of a looming global recession worse than that caused by the 2008 financial crisis. The global GDP in 2020 is set to shrink by 3%; the worst decline since the great depression of 1930 according to IMF. Millions of people the world over have lost their jobs with some businesses shutting down, some of which can never reopen again. OXFAM International, an NGO for poverty alleviation warns that this pandemic might push half a billion people to poverty if mitigation measures are not put in place. Coronavirus pandemic has been touted as arguably the worst health crisis in this 4th industrial revolution.

There is a massive change in how employers do their job in the business space. Employers can now work remotely from their homes, reminding us that the mind-set of physical presence in a particular place before an employer can deliver their jobs efficiently is not cast in concrete. Performance and productivity can be achieved without necessarily being in a fixed place called office. Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted this.

Worship places like churches have been closed down and the hardworking local pastor whose livelihood depended on tithes and offerings has been seriously affected as offerings are hugely reduced. Church services are now virtually delivered via the internet; this has the tendency of cutting away majority of church members who do not have access to internet. Church members have now been reminded that serving God is a relationship that depends much on the individual than routinely congregating in a physical building.

Education has also not been spared. Educational institutions have been closed with major examinations suspended. Schools and education ministries now have to resort to online learning and TV broadcasting to deliver education to learners. This comes with enormous challenge because of the disparity in digital access by students and nations. Both parents and educators are in the dark with regards to when normal academic work can resume. Academic calendars have also been disrupted.

Science, which by persistent and painstaking labour contributed enormously to health and has done so much to drive similar pandemics to the point of extinction, has thus far stood powerless before the novel coronavirus pandemic.

To stop the spread of the virus, it was recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) that countries need to radically change almost everything they do: how they work, socialize, shop, manage our health, education and personal hygiene. The phrase ‘social distancing’ has become the phrase of the moment as most people are for the first time hearing it.

By adopting measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 coupled with the drastic changes the coronavirus has forced on all sectors of nations, we now have a new normal. The painful truth is until a vaccine is developed against COVID-19, we will not be able to return to the way things used to be; our old normal.

Even when we finally get a vaccine or people develop immunity, our old normal can never come back; it is lost and gone. In the new normal we are going to change what was wrong but keep what was right with the old normal.

Below are few core areas where we can never go back to normality as we knew it.

Health Care Sector
Before coronavirus, we had what was called a ‘weak’ health system.

There were only two research facilities to test for the virus (Noguchi Medical Research Institute and Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research) but though the pandemic has not ended, about 8 places have been added that can also test for the virus. More attention is going to be given to science research now that its critical nature which has always been has been revealed.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, there were 88 districts without hospitals and 6 regions without regional hospitals. There were no infectious disease control centres and testing and isolation centres to fight diseases like the COVID-19. After the coronavirus pandemic, as promised by the president in his eighth address, we are going to have 88 new hospitals in the 88 districts and 6 new regional hospitals in the 6 regions. We are also going to have at least 3 infectious disease control centres for the zones of our country.

These investments is going to greatly augment our health care system putting us in a place where we will be better ready for a pandemic than we were prior to COVID-19 and this is a new normal we cannot go back from. Additionally, our health care workers are now going to be treated with some respect because of the new understanding we have about the risk associated with their jobs. We now understand the importance and urgency of PPEs in our health facilities.

Finally, as we take measures and refashion our hospitals to address COVID-19, we will also make them safer and ready to deal with other diseases. Investments that rejuvenate our public health system will protect us from many infections and other threats to our health. We are going to have a new ‘normal’ health system.

Education
It is of essence that as we are thinking of how to cope with the crisis in education because of COVID-19 pandemic, educators also think of how our education system can recover stronger, with better understanding and sense of urgency of the need to close the gaps revealed by the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the massive chasm that exists with technology integration in our education system.

The importance of online learning in education cannot be made clearer than it has been made by COVID-19. After the pandemic, I believe online learning is going to be massively improved and integrated in our education system at all levels. We have no option than to do that.

The ministry of education should provide all necessary means to make online learning a normal activity in schools than an emergency solution. Teachers and learners should be trained and encouraged to use online resources when school is in session and during vacations. The digital divide between the rich and the poor which has always been a hindrance to successful integration of technology must be attended to.

Teaching and learning is going to be greatly influenced by online learning and virtual teaching, this is going to be a ‘new normal’ in our education system.

Private schools have also suffered a lot because of COVID-19. The managers must adopt a new normal that can help them reach their students and engage them academically to keep their income flowing since their management and survival depends heavily on parents paying fees. But as schools are closed, jobs are lost and fees are not coming, most of them are struggling to survive to talk of paying their staff.

A new normal will require proper management, good tax returns so they can get government support or get access to credit facilities as profit making companies.

Virtual Work Space in the Business World
There is already a paradigm shift in the business environment, as subtle as it may be, it cannot be ignored.

Some employers were fixated with log ins and log outs as a measure of time spent by an employer at a work place and therefore productivity and performance. This approach has been proved to be redundant by COVID-19. As lockdowns were imposed, employers could work on virtual platforms away from office buildings. The traditional procedure of gathering at one place by employees has been disrupted by COVID-19 and organizations had to work together with employers and customers on virtual platforms. This new normal is a reality check for managers.

Managers had to become savvy in technology-based means to virtually reach employers and customers. These new ‘normal’ way of working has to be accepted as part of organizational operations to prevent being overwhelmed by similar situations like COVID-19. This requires leadership reconsidering their tenets, and operational adjustments for some businesses.

Managers must now accept that employers can be as effective when working partly or fully on a virtual platform. And technology with its vast benefits can aid and promote this virtual work space efficiently.

Our Lifestyles
The measures which have so far been recommended for the control of the coronavirus pandemic demand a drastic change in our daily lifestyles. We are forced to accept some hitherto anti-social habits. You cannot shake or give a hug. These habits have now become the ‘new normal’ in our lives.

We have learnt from COVID-19 pandemic how widely and how quickly respiratory infections may spread. We can safely infer that the medium by which coronavirus spreads is the same way we pick respiratory infections from others. Therefore the habits of regular washing of hands with soap under running water, carrying around a hand sanitizer, covering of mouth when sneezing or coughing and taking in supplements to boost immune system are likely to stay with us.

One great lesson from COVID-19 is the fact that respiratory diseases are still prevalent in ordinary times but we are apathetic towards them because their pandemic character is so mild. But the knowledge from COVID-19 fight is going to affect our lifestyle one way or another. Don’t be angry or surprised when people are still reluctant to shake hands or give a hug even after COVID-19. It is the psychological fear COVID-19 has given us.

In conclusion, when it comes to infectious diseases, the term global village takes its true meaning and the global community is as strong as the weakest link. Until every country is able to successfully control this pandemic, none can claim absolute safety. Because of this, it will be difficult to talk of normality.

It is tempting to and right to ask or think of normalcy but considering the aforementioned, the truth is, we won’t go back, at least not the normal we knew. However, we can achieve a new kind of normalcy, even if it is going to differ in fundamental ways from the old.

The writer Solomon Nana Kwame Ansong is an educationist with Biochemistry background, who has an interest in educational and social issues.

Solomon Nana Kwame Ansong
Solomon Nana Kwame Ansong, © 2020

The writer is an educationist with Biochemistry background, who has an interest in educational and social issues.Column: SolomonNanaKwameAnsong

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