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Thursday, June 1, 2023

The pandemic gifts a new normal

Covid is a human crisis affecting everybody, directly or indirectly, and creating an uncertainty for many about what lies ahead in terms of continuity of work, personal finances and family welfare. Any natural disaster comes unannounced and this is true of the corona pandemic as well — its new wave of mutation was suspected but was never easy to size up.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it may be recalled, repeatedly warned the country during the unlock phase last year to take all Covid precautions. That many people chose to ignore them, for lack of understanding of the threat or because of an attitudinal flaw, was one factor that contributed to the severity of the ‘second’ wave.

Herd mentality drove people to aggregating together on religious occasions ‘for strength’ even when the situation demanded keeping away from crowds. Once a fresh wave broke out the Prime Minister himself lost no time in launching a nationwide effort to mop up needed resources and equipment with the help of experts and senior officials.

Considering the nationwide spread of the virus, it was logical for the Centre to encourage the states to feel free to explore avenues of producing oxygen, procuring hospital equipment and accessing medical stock, to supplement the central initiatives. Because of the huge variations in the intensity of the affliction across the country, the Centre authorised the states to determine the policy of lockdown and containment zone on their own.

The Prime Minister’s emphasis on the indigenous manufacture of a Covid vaccine proved to be of great help — the Centre took the import of vaccines in its own hands when decentralisation of procurement did not produce satisfactory results. There is no doubt that the Modi government worked proactively through the crisis. The prospects of vaccination picking up has made the general public in urban centres optimistic — people appreciate a government that at least tries hard to deal with a challenging situation. In their eyes, Prime Minister Modi’s leadership qualities remain undiminished.

Social scientists and economic experts are trying to figure out what long-range impact the crisis would have on individuals, organisations and nations but any observer can pick up at least some pieces to reconstruct a framework of learnings and course corrections that is going to delineate what the ‘new normal’ would be in the times ahead.

A few things stand to reason in the areas of personal domain, organisational coherence and the larger understanding of life itself. These together can be taken as a ‘gift’ of the pandemic and accepted as an ‘upgrade’ for future living in general.

Of prime importance is the healthy attitude of ‘compliance’ that Covid lockdowns created among the people in regard to acceptance of some curtailment of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ one was used to enjoying in the normal course of life. At home or at ‘work’ — the concept of the workplace itself had changed — the environ pushed everybody towards a new awareness of ‘self’ and a ‘rediscovery’ of one’s role both as an ‘observer’ and as a ‘doer’ in the period of crisis. In the new normal that the pandemic is setting for all, three things are happening in particular.

First, a new kind of camaraderie has been created that unites the colleagues and family members who were not able to meet physically, much like ‘friends in distress’ sailing in the same boat. There are fewer complaints and expectations.

Secondly, an understanding of how immunity gained from good health was a basic safeguard against the virus, created a willingness to incorporate some exercise regimen, both physical and mental, in the lifestyle. This is an upshot of the recognition of ‘self’ referred to earlier.

And finally, the experience of ‘work from home’ may have produced different kinds of impact on different people but at a deeper level it has enabled an employee to get a fairly good idea of where he or she stood in terms of adding value to the organisation. Earlier, in the rush of work, evaluation of performance was done mostly by third parties but now ‘self-assessment’ would become an important new normal — providing a higher level of personal confidence to all members.

Beyond the individual, the pandemic has materially affected business management and organisational working in a manner that is setting in new norms for the future. It was generally said that a leader was tested in a crisis but what the health emergency, with its indeterminate time frame and the nature of risks involved, has done is to redefine leadership as also its mandate for the times ahead.

Issues of human resource development, delegation of decision-making, boss-subordinate relationship, emotional intelligence and importance of ‘nurtural’ leadership have all been opened up afresh compelling businesses and organisations to course correct on a whole lot of prevalent practices. A leader must know enough about the persons working for him — including the stresses in latter’s life outside of the workplace — and must appreciate that the responses of anybody were conditioned also by his or her emotional state at the time.

Working from a remote location and with communication limited to a virtual medium make it necessary and normal to decentralise decision-making to the extent possible and this puts credibility of the leader on test considering the fact that normally a senior was reluctant to delegate this power due to a lack of willingness to share responsibility for the step taken by a subordinate in exercise of the latter’s own judgement.

Another feature of the ‘new normal’ is the return of the old practice, that had fallen into disuse, of the productive organisations having a system of feedback from below for their own advancement. In the post-pandemic revival of economy, it will be crucial to maintain quality of product or service, evaluate demand and remove bottlenecks of the supply chain and delivery. Internal and external feedback is part of the mandate of the Age of Information that lays down the importance of ‘complete and ongoing’ business intelligence for achieving success in a competitive environ.

The post-Covid world is expected to settle down to a handling of personal, professional and social responsibilities in the light of lasting lifestyle changes the pandemic had forced on everybody, young or old. A chastened view of what was behind the Covid threat makes people accept the preventive dos and don’ts, understand the woes of fellow citizens as well and abide by the calls of governance coming in from the ruling dispensation. People would emerge with a sense of mental togetherness despite ‘social distancing’.

The pandemic has proved to be a great equaliser on account of shared vulnerabilities and has brought back the indefatigable spirit of man to retain positivity through an overpowering spell of adversity, on the one hand and to be prepared to render some possible help to others out of compassion, on the other. This would enhance the quality of life the world over as the pandemic becomes part of a historical memory embracing the entire humanity.

People would realise how even from a distance some service could be provided to others in difficulty — like offering a link for communication and ‘messaging’, helping in the search for some medicine or equipment and arranging delivery of food for the needy. All this was done quietly on a very significant scale reviving the spiritual legacy of mankind and enriching the future of humanity. The disaster has induced a higher thinking on ‘life’ itself.

Since the pandemic has presented an entirely new kind of health threat, attention of experts has all been focused on how to mitigate the ‘fear of the unknown’ by spelling out whatever was getting known about the virus so that people faced the crisis with a little more calm. As a well-known philosopher said ‘understanding is the end of the problem’ for it defines the best precautions one could take without running into a panic.

It is for lack of adequate briefing that people rushed to a hospital on testing Covid-positive — running into the hazards of an overrun establishment — instead of benefitting from home isolation. People cannot be blamed because public education and communication from medical experts took some time catching up. A positive result of the pandemic is the restoration of the importance of ‘public health’ and ‘primary care’ as part of the normal life.

These were nearly forgotten earlier. The emergency produced an overriding priority for ‘disease centric’ approach to the neglect of preventive measures. A mix of personal hygiene, physical and mental exercises and an attitude of extending help to others is likely to emerge as the lifestyle paradigms of the new normal — hopefully pushing us towards a better society.

Perhaps the most important transformational impact of the prolonged Covid emergency is on an entire generation of young students who were put in segregation and deprived of an interactive life they were so much adapted to. They could not comprehend the screen substitute of a classroom and a teacher — the online format came too suddenly and took the demand for strict compliance of the homework to a new level of enforcement and joylessness.

The education system and infrastructure could not devise an acceptable via media — in Bharat even classroom education was beset with ‘authority’ and one way instruction. It called for innovative redesigning of curriculum and personalised communication. The plus side of online education, however, had made a mark and even on the resumption of all that was happening before, the new practice will be perfected and assimilated in the classroom protocol.

A healthy mix of face-to-face interaction with a teacher in the classroom and an online backup of the ‘tutorial’ with a small group at a time, will evolve for the good of both students and teachers as daily visits to school may not be required any more. The staffing pattern may be made cost effective through the induction of part-time teachers, reduction of bus movement and putting teachers in turn on duty in fixed hours for consultation by students online for any urgent guidance — much like doctors were being made available for ‘calls’. Education of children certainly can do with a switch to an improved ‘new normal’ that would be more rewarding for all concerned.

The pandemic has devastated the nation’s economy and pending its meaningful revival put a large population under distress and even destitution. All over the world it has deepened the divide between the rich and the poor. A democratic dispensation has the onus of a welfare state too and the policies of helping people pushed below the poverty line have to be swift, purposeful and unfailing in reaching the doorstep.

The administrative machinery of the state has learnt its lessons in micromanagement and the best strategy of post-Covid governance would be to launch Centre-state joint schemes to be implemented essentially at the district level where a strong team of senior officers led by the DM-SP combine is perfectly placed to make a success of both ‘survey’ and ‘delivery’.

The Modi government has already pushed digitisation of governance in service of the common man and will therefore be able to handle the challenge of reaching out to the citizens in distress in cities and villages alike — through the combination of digital and human resources. This task has no political tint and the opposition therefore should be on the same side as the Centre in redressing the human suffering in the period of recovery from the Covid crisis.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed with minor edits to conform to HinduPost style-guide.)

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