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[Robert J. Fouser] The pull of ‘normalcy’

As the COVID-19 pandemic fades, countries around the world are returning to in-person life. Families are gathering, schools are opening, and city streets are coming back to life. The pandemic is not over, and much suffering remains, but the trajectory is moving toward an end. As the world returns to normal, speculation abounds about the lasting influence of the pandemic on society and institutions. Which changes will remain and which will disappear?

In the early days of the pandemic, the 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic offered insight into how to manage the new and extremely contagious COVID-19. Public health experts turned to classical approaches, such as masks and social distancing, which had been used effectively a century earlier. They also warned correctly about pandemic waves hitting hard and devastating the unprepared.

As the pandemic has started to wind down, references to the Spanish flu are fading from public discourse. The aftermath, however, offers insight into what the post-pandemic world might look like.

The Spanish flu pandemic hit at the end of World War I as war ravaged much of Europe. Unlike COVID-19, the Spanish flu was hardest on young people. The combination of the war and the pandemic created a lasting trauma that affected the outlook of a generation. The fragility of life stirred a search for stability that contributed to the rise of order-imposing fascism.

Another reaction to the trauma was escape. The Roaring Twenties were a time of conspicuous consumption and rule-breaking cultural movements. Instead of searching for order, people with money searched for escape. Money itself was an escape as people got caught up in stock market and real estate speculation.

The problem with the post-Spanish flu 1920s was that once escapism ran its course in economic collapse, the search for order won. This led to the most devastating war in human history beginning in the 1930s. Escapism masked deeper economic and social problems left over from the war and dislocation from the Second Industrial Revolution.

Leaders today should avoid the temptation to promise a “return to normalcy,” as Warren G. Harding promised in his campaign for US president in 1920. Harding ended up winning the election by a margin of 26 percent, the widest since 1808, over his democratic opponent. “Normalcy” clearly worked for Harding, and it remains the easiest way out for leaders today.

COVID-19 pandemic changes can be divided into three main groups. The first are technological changes that built on trends, such as delivery and distance work and learning, which were already accelerating when the pandemic hit. The second are more abrupt social changes that emerged during the pandemic. The surge in interest in social injustice that manifested itself most strongly in the Black Lives Matter protests around the world last summer. And the third are temporary changes, such as mask mandates, related to public health measures.

Among these changes, the public health measures will be the first to go, though some may remain as habits have changed. The first two changes will not go away because they are deeper and go beyond the immediate public health response. Leaders should embrace them to build better societies.

Throughout history, technological changes have caused dislocation. Older forms of life and work become redundant and disappear. The acceleration of technological change in the 21st century is broad dislocation, hitting those with less education the worst, while those with high levels of education prosper. To address this issue, societies need to invest in dislocated people and rethink the value they assign various forms of work.

Social changes, meanwhile, create new values that inform public policy. The Black Lives Matter protests emerged from the US context, but they resonated with people around the world because systemic discrimination exists everywhere, usually with covert state support. The protests are more than a comment on discrimination but also resistance to state oppression in the form of police violence. To address this issue, societies need to dismantle discrimination and rethink how they use state power.

South Korea’s experience with technological change and social change over the last 40 years give it a unique perspective on the challenges facing the post-pandemic world. The country has faced economic dislocation from technological change and a wrenching economic crisis in 1997-1998. It has evolved from a dictatorship that used police power at will to a democracy where a million people can gather peacefully to call for the impeachment of a president. These things happened because leaders ignored the pull of “normalcy” and embraced the reality of change.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at – Ed.
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