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Opinion It would be a shame to go back to ‘normal’

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) has his temperature taken during a screening before a news briefing at the Los Angeles Jewish Home on Tuesday. (Hans Gutknecht/AP)

We know all too well the big things — no school, no going into the office (or in some cases, no jobs) — that we have missed over the past couple of months due to pandemic-induced sheltering in place, but it is sometimes hard to recall how different our lives were just a short time ago.

Mostly, it is hard to remember a time when everything wasn’t about the pandemic — when every action, conversation and decision did not revolve around the oppressive topic. Remember when the first thing we noticed about a stranger wasn’t whether he or she was wearing a mask? Or when we would ask “How are you?” as a conversation filler, without really wanting to know the answer? Most of us haven’t been to a friend’s house (at least not inside), a religious service, a birthday or anniversary celebration or a graduation (the real ones, not the virtual ones) in a very long time. Even when social-distancing rules lift, many still will not get on a train, a bus or an airplane. I don’t think I will see the inside of a movie theater or mall for a long time.

Still, some changes are clearly for the better — e.g., treating store clerks and cleaning staff as valuable, even heroic workers. Some parents haven’t spent this much time with their kids in years — if ever.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a series of changes in his state on Tuesday that underscored how abnormally we have spent the past couple of months. Cuomo, for example, announced Nassau County would be able to offer elective surgery and ambulatory care. “Anyone who needs health service should get it. ... No reason not to go to the doctor’s office. Many reasons why you should go. Denial is not a life strategy,” Cuomo said. Just imagine all the minor and not so minor health issues that have gotten pushed to the side — and worsened. Taking one’s health for granted is very pre-pandemic. (We have also endured hospitals without visitors, caretakers and loved ones, although Cuomo announced "a pilot project to see if we can bring visitors in and do it safely.”)

The D.C. restaurant Little Sesame could have closed because of coronavirus but is using its kitchen to serve the city's most vulnerable instead. (Video: Shane Alcock/The Washington Post)

Cuomo also suggested car parades in honor of Memorial Day, a reminder that we have had no public holiday celebrations for months. Every college and professional sporting event disappeared, although Cuomo wants sports teams to consider restarting in empty stadiums. Other than the grocery store, the bank and the pharmacy, millions of Americans have not gone anywhere for weeks.

Nevertheless, as much as we long to recapture as much of our old lives as soon as possible, it’s what might be different that intrigues us the most. Cuomo observed that the pandemic “makes you think through personal relationships and what’s important and where you’ve been spending your time.” He continued: “Sometimes when something is taken away, you see how valuable it was. Now you can’t go see family members if you wanted to. You can’t see friends if you wanted to. When someone says you can’t, it changes your whole perspective. You ask yourself why haven’t I been? Why didn’t I? When I get a chance, how am I going to do it differently this time?”

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On a personal level, more time with family, more home-cooked meals and less time in traffic seem like pandemic-era experiences worth preserving even when we are allowed out into the world. The pandemic also should change how Americans view government, at all levels. Cuomo pointed out:

Well, government is now important again in a way it hasn’t been in my lifetime. It matters what government does. Government has made the difference between life and death here, right? Because government is part of social action, and the people who saved lives in this are New Yorkers for doing the right thing. But government was part of that. It helps organize. Today, government’s going to be held to a different standard, and it has to be fundamentally different. It has to be smarter than it was. It matters now what happens. You have to know what you’re doing now. Not just look like you know what you’re doing, not just sound like you know what you’re doing. You have to be smart. You’re not going to tweet your way through this. You have to be smart. You have to be competent at what you do. There’s something called government, and you either know how to do it or you don’t know how to do it.

If we can retain some of the pandemic’s lessons — be extra careful with our own health and the health of everyone around us, take no worker and no job for granted, appreciate those we live with, insist on putting grown-ups in positions of authority and seek reliable, data-driven information — we might come out a kinder, smarter and more considerate society. (That still requires that we not reelect the same cruel, contemptuous ignoramuses in November.)

In sum, going back to “normal” now does not seem to be good enough. Not after all we have been through.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

Read more:

Sergio Peçanha: Five habits we should keep as we reenter the world

Kathleen Parker: Lost graduations are ultimately trivial. But they remind us why rituals matter.

Kate Cohen: I finished ‘War and Peace’ — and now I’m over pandemic self-improvement

‘I’m existing, not living’: How readers are coping with jobs and quarantine during the pandemic

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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