COVID-19 and the New Normal

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For the first time in about 6 weeks it finally feels like developments are slowing down into a “new normal”. As I so eloquently documented in COVID-19: Diary of an Outbreak, alarming news was coming thick and fast in the early days of March (can the Spanish really give up tapas?) as we made our slow foot journey along the Portuguese coast on the amazing Rota Vicentina trek, the best of Portugal’s hiking trails which goes along the Costa Vicentina through the beach towns and charming villages of Aljezur, Odexeice, Zambujeira, Almograve, Carrapateira, Vila Nova de Milfontes and Porto Covo along the way.

Then toward mid-March all hell broke loose, unleashing a daily barrage of new fears, increased restrictions and updated body counts, every day featuring ominous political warnings, reactionary flight cancellations and even more logistical moaning on the part of professional sports leagues. Throughout Europe and North America (our current and eventual places of residence, hence, the areas of main import to our story) people were being warned against leaving their homes, congregating with others and picking their noses (regardless of whether anyone was watching or not). That stage, at least, we took to like farmers to oversized rubber boots, as I explained in How Travel Has Prepared Us for Social Isolation.

Now, however, we are 2 weeks into April, the ominous danger of risky Easter gatherings has been finally avoided and the days are finally starting to blend. Not so much in a “wearing the same clothes / losing track of statutory holidays / working on the same couch dent” sort of way (that happened long ago), but more in the way of getting up each morning and checking the latest news without fully expecting to hear of fresh new calamities, further airport shutdowns or convoluted arguments over seemingly simple questions about masks. In 23 Ways the Coronavirus will Change Travel I offered a long list of bold assertions, some of which, statistically, are sure to be wrong. One that I’m pretty sure about, though, is that no matter how successful recent mitigation measures turn out to be in each region, for the foreseeable future our daily lives are going to be far different than we could have imagined just a few months ago.

The New Normal

Hygiene

Compulsive hand washing was the first and simplest precaution preached to us by those in the know and, not surprisingly, seems to be the one most taken to heart by the general population. There may be arguments regarding the usefulness and safety of pretty much every other safety measure, but so far I haven’t heard a single person refusing to wash their hands more than normal because they believe it is a deep and sinister – and probably dangerous! – plot engineered by soap companies to sell loads and loads of soap. And did you know that soap can be made with human fat? Let that sink in for a minute, then tell me there’s not more to this whole hand washing conspiracy. No, people seem ok with washing their hands. For now.

You may as well get used to the rest of it, too, though. Masks (in all their different variations), hand sanitizer dispensers and rigorous disinfecting (of groceries, public spaces, shared lip balm) are all here to stay at least until an effective and readily available vaccine has been completed. Even rubber gloves are starting to lose their sexual connection.

Empty streets

Whenever a specific city or region eases restrictions there is bound to be an immediate rush to the outdoors, because, finally, we can. But it won’t last. Big gatherings will remain outlawed and even general mingling is going to be frowned upon, both by authorities and in a literal sense by frowning neighbours and passersby. Loitering, as ever, will remain one of the most audaciously offensive activities that any municipality (or grumpy senior citizen) can imagine.

Caution

Caution has become such a part of our daily lives that our standard farewell has already changed from “see ya later” to “stay safe”. Although I guess that’s still less disconcerting than “blessed be the fruit”. In addition to increased personal safety measures regarding masks and hand washing, public interaction is now a far more spaced out affair. Strict limits on the number of shoppers allowed in grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential businesses have made it commonplace to see well-spaced lines waiting outside. Restaurants and bars are limited to takeaway and delivery service for the time being and, even when they eventually re-open, expect it to be with far fewer tables and greatly reduced capacity to ensure proper spacing. And the general rule will continue to be “don’t touch anything, anywhere, ever”.

The good news for us is that in the parts of the world that matter most to us personally (our current location in the Algarve in Portugal, plus Saskatchewan and Guatemala) the isolation and distancing measures have been hugely successful so far (knock on wood). All three benefitted from being marginally off the grid, letting them learn valuable lessons from the hardest-hit regions around the world and put preventative measures in place, rather than simply reacting and trying to play catch-up. Trying to implement widespread lifestyle changes across the entire population once an exponential outbreak is already occurring is still absolutely necessary but – as we’ve seen in disaster zones like Italy, Spain and New York –  for thousands of unfortunate people, too little, too late.

The main objective of “flattening the curve” is to keep health care systems from being overwhelmed. However, it is also crucial in other ways. Holding off uncontrolled transmission of the virus for a month (and hopefully more) like we have has bought valuable time to stockpile health resources, plan strategies and teach people how to reduce the risks. During this time, massive progress has been made in testing technology, which is significant because the true scale of any “re-opening” will be directly tied to our ability to test broadly and accurately to ensure we can control inevitable future outbreaks quickly and effectively. So far, so good, we just need to keep people from getting complacent and allowing the virus to get a foothold.

Suspicion and paranoia

Whatever the rules happen to be, people are now fully aware of the danger the coronavirus represents and are going to look scathingly upon anyone they feel is increasing that danger. I can only remember hearing one cough in the past 6 weeks, and I’m pretty sure that guy just involuntarily reacted to swallowing a fly. It seems logical that fewer people are coming down with common colds because of all the COVID-19 precautions, yet highly improbable that not a single person in Portugal has had one since we got here. I know it sounds crazy, but I think it is possible, even likely – hear me out! – that people are intentionally suppressing coughs in public to avoid sounding sick and, most importantly – CONTAGIOUS!! Which makes me wonder, in the past, why were so many people hacking and coughing their way around public spaces like they were valiantly battling through the tail-end of an epic battle with tuberculosis? Is there a fun, mischievously enjoyable side to coughing I’ve missed all these years?

“Closed”

Regardless, suspicion and the stink-eye will be commonplace throughout the public sphere. Whenever someone accidentally stumbles within arm’s length of another human being, or leans too close to the ATM screen without a mask or foolishly picks up a box of cereal before having completed their $ per gram due diligence and sheepishly has to return the already touched box back to the shelf.

And every single morning, around the world, paranoia will reign as people waking up with headaches, dry throats or slight fevers will examine themselves in the mirror before spending a panicky hour reviewing COVID-19 symptoms on the internet. Even debilitating lung infections are now going to be considered cause for concern.

The Statistics of Death

A barrage of daily charts, graphs and infection counts can occasionally make us numb to the reality behind these numbers. We’ve taken to speaking about promising declines in deaths, from thousands to mere hundreds, like we’re discussing the price of fuel or an exciting new sale on campervan furniture. Yes, intellectually, we understand that these are real people we’re talking about, and those with people close to them who’ve been affected surely never forget that, but at a certain point the numbers simply get too absurd and depressing to comprehend. 2,500 people died in the U.S. a couple days ago and that is considered “encouraging”. Strange days, indeed.

Conspiracy Theories

People hate not having control. They also hate not being able to understand. For many people, this coronavirus causes both those things. As a result, most of these people react by listening to those with the ability to make a significant impact (i.e. health professionals) and respecting the explanations and advice of trained experts (i.e. scientists and major medical organizations). Some people, though, just make shit up. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Very few of these people actually boast the intelligence or imagination required to come up with a wildly implausible and easily refuted theory that, nevertheless, fortuitously allows them to ignore inconvenient truths and remain mindlessly faithful to their preferred narrative. However, lots of them are really good at sharing other people’s moronic theories on social media.

Isolation and loneliness

Yes, it can be hard to be stuck in “isolation” with your significant other. You can only have so many conversations about what to have for dinner or whether or not it’s plausible to wait until tomorrow to take out the trash. In some ways, it can be even harder to isolate with a spouse than alone because spouses – unlike your cat or the people you cleverly roast on Twitter – can sometimes, very occasionally, be reluctant to accept constructive criticism. However, going through social isolation alone must also be an emotional rollercoaster, albeit one without the challenge of having to fight for the good couch pillow. Eating and drinking whatever strikes your fancy without any judgemental gazes is probably liberating, but that also means you are on the hook for all the dishes, all the time. And, sure, it’s great that you can clip your toenails on the couch while watching Property Brothers as often as you want but, on the other hand, sometimes it would be nice to have another person around to help you fold a fitted sheet. Pros and cons to both, is what I’m saying.

Uncertainty

Travelling as much as we do, we are probably a little more accustomed to uncertainty than most people. But usually just small uncertainties, like whether we’re waiting at the right bus stop at the right time, or if we can complete our day’s hike before the rain hits, or whether the restaurant we found on TripAdvisor really has “the BEST burgers in town!” like WanderingSteve said, or whether they turn out to be “dry, with way too much bun, appies way overpriced”, like Roy2017 bitterly attests. These days, however, we’re facing a whole new class of uncertainties, big stuff, like whether our flights will be cancelled permanently, or whether we will get arrested for walking on the beach, or whether we’ll die of a global pandemic, things like that.

And many other people are accustomed to far more stability in their lives, with steady jobs during predictable hours and nightly routines and iron-clad meal schedules and a clear favourite toilet paper brand. Now all of that is out the window, our comforting stability now completely upended by COVID-19. Upended, kicked while down, dragged out back, then shot (to complete the metaphor no one else was picturing but me). In our new normal, jobs are in disarray or lost, stores are closed, movement is restricted, kids are out of school, inhabiting your home 24 hours a day and the evidence is mounting to suggest that they might actually be dicks. In addition, nobody knows when the coronavirus will be effectively contained, when social distancing measures will be lifted, when a vaccine will be ready, or even if it’s true the Houston Astros engineered the whole thing just to distract from their sign- and world-series-stealing scandal. Probably, because they’re evil. But we still can’t answer those other questions. And a lot of people will be finding that very difficult to handle.

Barriers

While these can be both physical – gates, police tape, roadblocks – and metaphorical – a self-destructive refusal to allow yourself happiness – for now I’m going to stick with the literal kind. People are notoriously and frustratingly prone to ignoring sensible rules and prudent advice so, therefore, cannot be trusted. In this particular case, that means they can’t be trusted to stay away from places they shouldn’t be, such as public recreation areas, beaches and walking trails. Which brings us to: gates, police tape and roadblocks. While they may be mostly symbolic in many instances, at least they force people to look shifty and suspicious while sneaking past.

Travel Restrictions

It is going to be some time before foreign travellers are welcomed with open arms. Specific rules are going to depend on where each country falls in the COVID-19 curve, where the traveller resides and the specific flight path. We have been monitoring flight options throughout our time in Portugal and have seen the list of cities with regular service to Canada shrink to just London, Paris and Frankfurt. In addition, before booking anything we need to research all the up-to-the-minute travel restrictions so that we can be sure we are allowed to make all necessary connections. For example, there is one direct flight per day from Lisbon to Frankfurt but we needed to check with the German embassy to make sure we will be allowed to transit – even if we need to leave the international area to check-in with a different airline.

Anyway, I’m not saying you won’t be able to fly places this summer, just that from now on checking travel restrictions is going to be a standard part of any pre-trip planning routine for choosing where to go after lockdown, joining old standby info such as climate data, festival avoidance and current regulations regarding root vegetables in your carry-on luggage.

Limited flights

Gone are the days when you could throw a dart at 2 destinations on a map and assume 5-10 daily flight options between them. Your choice could be based, not just on price, but also on number of stops, layover lengths, baggage allowances, food service and the number of Pixar movies available for purchase on the plane. Nope, outside of the main schedules between major centres, most routes will only be running once per day, if that. If you’re really lucky, you might get to choose between two overpriced options – one that leaves at 5:40 am, arrives at midnight and includes a 9-hour layover in Dublin, and one with better departure and arrival times that avoids Ireland completely but requires a total of 106 hours transit time and touches down on 3 different continents. But it also allows a carry-on and a personal item, so you simply can’t decide.

Appreciation

It’s no coincidence that this was also the final entry on my list of ways travel is going to change, and one of the few positive effects. In Canada it is hard to sufficiently appreciate all the great things in our lives all the time, and I think we’re generally doing pretty good if we can just remind ourselves to be thankful every now and then. For instance, Laynni has recently rediscovered the salty, crunchy elegance of Bugles snack chips, and she couldn’t be happier about it. But, even beyond nostalgic love of junk food, this whole pandemic business has been pretty eye-opening. I mean, not for the geniuses that still think the virus is caused by 5G technology, or that it’s all just a diabolical plot to mess with the S&P500 – those titans of critical thinking aren’t about to give in and let this crisis provide perspective. No, as inconvenient as this has been for most, and tragic for many others, we don’t have to look far to see how much worse our situations could be. I mean, even under the best of circumstances I rarely think to myself “you know, I kind of wish I lived in a Congolese slum and spent my days working at whatever horrendously dangerous and underpaid job I can find each day to hopefully make enough money so that my kids don’t starve”. But, with all that’s going on right now, this seems like a particularly bad time to be a subsistence labourer in an underdeveloped country. Or American.

Which is why most people have quickly realized just how awesome they had it – back in the old days of early March – when they could still go to work and do their job in a normal fashion, when they still had a job to go to, when they could still send their children off into some mysterious void every day, when the store shelves featured more toilet paper than you could ever imagine using, when you didn’t get up every morning thinking about cutting your own hair, when playgrounds were still open and it was acceptable to use 45 minutes of soccer as an excuse for 3 hours of drinking.

So, for a change, I think the majority of people are extremely ready to appreciate all those things on an entirely new level when they finally return to our lives and their post-COVID bucket list. In the meantime, though, at least we can all agree on the one universal truth of our era:

Internet, you are bloody amazing. Promise you’ll never leave us.

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