It’s easy to ask when things will go back to normal. But that “normal” is set to change.
These days, it’s normal to hear eager discussions about when life will “return to normal.” For most of 2020, people have been stuck at their homes, away from their friends and even their families. Most haven’t been able to go to work, to school, to their place of worship, or to holiday celebrations. Many haven’t been able to leave the house at all. And naturally, everyone is wondering when they can get back to their lives.
Seemingly, a return to normal life is beginning to happen. As the curve flattens in most of Europe and North Africa, lockdown measures are loosening. Morocco recently pulled back some of its own lockdown measures. Zone 1, which now covers all Moroccan provinces and prefectures aside from a few key cities, has allowed public spaces and businesses to reopen at half capacity.
People can now move around more freely within their cities and towns. Looking more forward, the government has begun discussing its plans to aid a gradual economic recovery for the nation.
The question “when will everything be normal again?” is on track to find an answer in the next few months, but the post-pandemic “normal” will be noticeably different than life before lockdown. The COVID-19 crisis, and the national responses to it, are set to have lasting impacts on the world.
A more masked society: The East Asia example
As early as the 1980s in East Asia, wearing medical masks was already a common practice for those who were sick, to protect others around them. This was the legacy of pandemic after pandemic that had plagued the region in the past.
After the SARS outbreak in China in 2002-2003, wearing medical masks became standard hygienic practice across East Asia, even for those who were not sick. In the aftermath of that outbreak, it became the social norm to wear different types of masks in public to protect oneself from germs, air pollution, or even pollen. Culturally, they have slotted into regional values and become a tool of protection or anonymity.
After this new worldwide pandemic, it is reasonable to expect there could be a similar change in face mask culture. In some countries, we’re already seeing the previously foreign medical mask become a normalized item. In Austria, masks have become mandatory in supermarkets, and the neighboring Czech Republic and Slovakia have mandated their use in any public space.
As of April 7, Morocco made wearing medical masks mandatory in public, and by mid-June the country had produced over 18 million face masks with a national stockpile of 15 million.
However, this may only be temporary. Debates and controversies over mask usage are already happening in the United States and France, even as COVID-19 continues to kill in these countries. Even if masks are normalized at the moment, the end of the pandemic could see society shun them again.
Looking to East Asia once more, Hong Kong provides a good example of what may happen after the COVID-19 pandemic in countries where skepticism regarding medical masks is high. During the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, medical mask use became a strict social norm—but after the pandemic, their use decreased. Medical mask use has become less culturally and socially accepted in Hong Kong, often inviting stigmatization, teasing, and social avoidance.
It’s likely that, for the rest of the world, medical masks will still see use after the pandemic has ended. Yet it seems unlikely that they’ll become a common, socially acceptable garment—even if they are socially tolerable due to the memories of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A different travel policy
The coronavirus pandemic peaking at different times in different countries reveals a challenge to travel and border policies going forward. Consider the EU as an example. The bloc has seen its own case numbers fall, and is now considering opening its borders once more to specific external travelers. However, case numbers are still going up in many nations of North America, Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
Even in countries which have contained the spread of COVID-19 and are re-opening amid its decline, new hotspots will pop up. In late June, the spokesman for the Moroccan government, Saaid Amzazi, said that the emergence of new hotspots during the country’s re-opening process would be normal and natural.
This creates a nightmarish scenario for airlines and governments alike. The plight of the tourism sector (which provides 11% of Morocco’s GDP) and the aviation sector during the pandemic is forcing many countries to consider re-opening their borders. Yet the variability of COVID-19’s growth across different countries makes this a challenge. And, even when a country is designated as a “safe” origin of travel, the emergence of hotspots could still cause disruptions and renewed travel restrictions.
In short, if the virus is spreading in just one country — or even one province — it means the previous status quo of air travel and tourism can’t fully return. Depending on how long COVID-19 continues to cause problems, the world could be waiting for a while.
According to the World Economic Forum, once the travel industry does re-open to its full extent, it could look very different than it did in 2019. The risk of infection through travel documents and other hands-on elements of travel mean that touchless check-ins and thorough sanitation may become common. Visible health measures such as disinfectant procedures and the wearing of masks, which more travelers now associate with safety, may become common as well. “From now on, health could be embedded in every aspect of travel.”
A digital revolution at work…
The unstable nature of domestic and international travel has caused issues for the business and higher education sectors alike. Because of this, digital solutions have become increasingly relevant. Remote work and remote education are becoming the new norm.
This seems on track to continue beyond the pandemic. Google and Facebook are already extending their employees’ remote work until 2021. As of June, Morocco was already preparing to formalize remote administrative work. Schools and most companies have also adopted digital solutions to keep their operations running, with these options viable even after the lockdown is eased.
As international researcher and consultant Abdellah Benahnia writes, “We may not be surprised to hear that half of a company’s workers permanently leave their offices, to work instead from home, in the near future. We may also hear that a number of teachers are conducting their classes from their sofa instead of school premises.”
The Moroccan Ministry of Education has created thousands of classes that are dependent on digital literacy, and independent groups are working to teach and promote the increasingly necessary skill.
While this has the potential to make remote work more viable, easy, and efficient, the move to online infrastructure has consequences. If large amounts of workers really do stay home, the typical large, physical offices of many companies might become obsolete. As Benahnia writes, the government is already investing in “teleworking” as perhaps a more efficient, cost-effective, and flexible approach to administrative tasks. If they prove a precedent for success, the private sector could follow suit.
… with challenges at home
A new normal of remote work and online infrastructure would certainly benefit many workers. Yet there are drawbacks to this, as Karima Rhanem writes: “Huge corporations with thousands of employees are using platforms such as IBM Jam to ensure good communication. However, corporate networks, used to secure private networks, may experience some challenges related to bandwidth caps, and must keep remote workers from feeling cut off from their employers.”
In addition to challenges in network security and employee isolation, there is the broad and worrying prospect that the work environment will seep ever further into the home.
“Many employees are gradually becoming familiar with Cloud-based tools, using startups like Slack and Zoom or established giants like Google and Microsoft in their remote home office… Big data has become more important than ever today in monitoring employee performance, predicting staff turnover, and using the most appropriate selection criteria for future recruitments,” stresses Rhanem.
If remote work becomes an ongoing standard, companies may need to conduct even more surveillance on their employees to ensure productivity and good communication. The workplace keeping an eye on its employees is normal—but until now, that watchful eye hasn’t extended into an employee’s home.
With work following the worker home, how we define personal and professional time may become blurred. How we often categorize work time and payment, by hour, may need to change when faced with a more flexible remote work environment. Even the laws regulating labor may need to adapt.
A hopeful future
The potential changes in clothing, sanitation, travel, education, and labor may seem overwhelming. But the pandemic has proven once again that even in a crisis, people can work together towards improving their country’s future. Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani has repeatedly praised the Moroccan people for demonstrating this solidarity during the pandemic.
As Morocco’s government eases lockdown restrictions, it’s apparent that some form of normal life will return. Asmae Rahmoun, a fourth-year university student, says that she now appreciates the simple things of that “normal” even more.
“I realized just how much of a blessing it is to be able to interact with people regularly.”