The Covid-19 challenge: reclaiming normalcy from the new normal

February 27, 2021 | 02:00 pm PT
Pham Nguyen Quy Doctor, medical researcher
Covid-19 is here to stay. But we cannot let the pandemic dictate terms even as we adapt to the new normal.

Do you agree to a 30-50 percent cut in your income? Will you refrain from going out to meet friends and family for extended periods of time, maybe forever?

These were much-debated questions in Japan where I live, as the country faced arguably the most impactful event of the decade in the form of a pandemic. Last year when the disease hit the country, authorities asked citizens to "refrain from going outside unless it was necessary or urgent." But it was difficult to pin down a definition of "necessary" or "urgent."

For the first few months, people heeded the request. Not surprising, considering the nature of news coming in, of deaths in the thousands, and suffering in the millions.

Over time, that sense of danger diminished, albeit slowly. People began to pay more attention to the costs of social distancing. For many, their jobs were their literal lifelines, keeping them and their family afloat. A pandemic disruption could lead them to ruin.

And reports were already showing rising numbers of the unemployed, businesses and individuals going bankrupt and many having their incomes cut drastically. The demand for social security support increased 25 percent year-on-year. The hospital where I work constantly saw new patients with severe conditions, not because of Covid-19, but because of delayed diagnosis and intervention. Either their insurance had expired or they were "waiting for Covid-19 to die out." People were getting stressed, depressed and committing suicide.

While there is a demographic of those more vulnerable to Covid-19 with underlying medical conditions, there are also those who are vulnerable after their incomes were cut. Without a financial safety net, that section of society also finds itself vulnerable to the disease.

However, the very measures we put in place to stop Covid-19 have been double-edged. Society began classifying behaviors that reduce the chance of infection as "good" and the opposite as "bad." Of course everyone wants to protect the elderly and prevent hospitals from being overstretched, but that doesn’t mean every action has to be labeled "good" or "bad." We can’t blindly justify travel restrictions and increased surveillance just because it’s an "emergency" and therefore no discussion.

If we do, we need to think again. Are we that willing to trade values we hold dear, like freedom of movement, meeting loved ones whenever we feel like it, give up our privacy, or the right to work and socially connect?

If such measures last a few weeks or even a few months, it’s manageable.

But we can see that Covid-19 is here to stay, maybe for years or even forever, coming back seasonally to haunt us. But we cannot let our sacrifices and giving up our rights to go along with the pandemic. It would set a horrible precedent.

Make no mistake, the pandemic’s impacts are horrible, too. I’ve met several elderly patients living in nursing homes, whose personalities slowly recede as dementia consumes whatever’s left of them, leaving them mere shadows of their former selves, all because they couldn’t see any of their loved ones for an entire year because of Covid-19. My colleagues are chronically stressed as their lives are confined within the walls of hospitals, waking up to the same schedule and meeting the same people, day in, day out.

Covid-19 is not just taking lives, but the joy of living, too.

A group of people sits at a coffee shop in HCMC while wearing masks. Photo by VnExpress/Tam Linh.

A group of people sits at a coffee shop in HCMC while wearing masks. Photo by VnExpress/Tam Linh.

I know there was no choice about facing tough restrictions in this war against the pandemic. But, even as we fight the pandemic, shouldn’t we think of how to let people retain their quality of life even in this situation. Instead of allowing ourselves to be shackled, shouldn’t we start to think of new ways to adapt to the new normal that retains and betters the quality of our lives?

Governments around the world are trying to find ways to restart their economies. Even with a vaccine, the virus will not be eradicated any time soon. That is a fact that we all need to come to terms with, Vietnam included.

After all, what’s life without risks? As we move towards the second year of living with Covid-19, I hope for a mentality that accepts risks, but does not accept a surrender to life-restricting conditions.

We should realize this and take it to heart: It’s never been about waiting for the storm to pass, but about learning to dance in the rain.

*Pham Nguyen Quy is a doctor at the Kyoto Min-iren Chuo Hospital and a medical researcher at the Kyoto University in Japan. He’s also the co-founder and project head of a community health organization since 2012 with over 300 doctors, medical workers and collaborators with the aim of raising medical awareness for Vietnamese. The opinions expressed are his own.

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