4/13/2020
Normal

These days my Viber groups aren't pinging as crazily as they were a few weeks ago. Part of it's because, from my vantage point at least, we've managed to figure out how "the movement of all cargo must be unhampered" should work out. Part of it's also because this enhanced community quarantine is already in its fifth week, and we've gotten used to the idea that the streets are less busy, and that we need a piece of paper to prove that we can be out and about to do the grocery run.

So now, the question is along the lines of, "what is the new normal?" What do we do to make sure the disruption we experienced these past few weeks - a necessary disruption, I must add, considering how COVID-19 is a health crisis our country is never in a position to face head-on - doesn't happen again?

I've been thinking of that from the beginning of the quarantine myself. Would there be less public events? A sucky situation for me, considering my living relies somewhat heavily on these events. Someone out there will evangelize on behalf of face-to-face meetings: emails are fine, but handshakes will always be better! I imagine someone who reads a lot of Monocle would argue. But then, Filipinos are more reactionary. Right now, going to any public event is a no-no, and that mindset would likely extend to a few months after the quarantine is lifted, partly because of legitimate health fears, but mostly because they don't want to go through Manila traffic again.

Would working from home no longer be the exception? I can't say, partly because that's what I've been doing, for the most part, for the past four years. To most of my peers, this is a novel idea, a somewhat idealized one. Yes, I have a bit more of a grip over my time, but this also means I am expected - required, perhaps - to be ready to work at any given moment, and that brings a whole new set of problems. (And trust me, when people talk about maintaining or promoting "work-life balance", they know it's bullshit and they're powerless.) But I digress.

Yes, for the past few months (or years, even) there has been some talk among our politicians about putting in place a policy encouraging companies to embrace "alternative working arrangements", to use new quarantine parlance, in the name of making Manila traffic a little more bearable. Okay, not exactly the most appropriate solution to a long-standing problem, but at least it's a start. But - and I ask this without having read the draft law, if there is one - how do we embrace working from home if we do not have the means to support it? Like, we still haven't figured out our subpar Internet networks. Not for lack of trying, but then, we haven't really tried enough, haven't we?

A lot of the answers to that question - "what is the new normal?" - has centered around better use of technology. I can't fault anyone for that, because that's where our heads have been before all this happened. Will cashless payments be a thing in a country where a good chunk of its people don't use banks? Will people buy more things online? Will the government finally roll out digital systems that will make most bureaucratic processes less of a pain in the ass? I mean, different agencies require people to submit the same documents over and over again, still.

These are worthy questions, sure, and one that everyone would need to tackle in one way or another. If we're to believe what the experts are saying - that the coronavirus pandemic is going to change a whole lot of things moving forward, from how we do our work, to how we entertain ourselves, to how we show off our curated-for-the-gram lives to the pathetic people that follow us - then we should grapple with these challenges and perhaps figure things out before we are caught unaware again. Personally, I'd want the government to see itself more like supply chain managers, responsible for the movement of goods from one point to another. This isn't just about delivering products from the factory to the supermarket. It's about making sure these companies have continued access to the resources they need to make and deliver these products, whether it be raw materials or personnel. (I'll also concede that this is my job speaking.) We may have sorted out the "the movement of all cargo must be unhampered" bit - a promise many government officials have made from the beginning, an order that didn't exactly reach the ground until two, maybe three, weeks later - but supermarket shelves are still empty in places, because even those who are asked to continue operating at full capacity cannot do so. Their people can't go to work, because of travel restrictions imposed at the municipal and even at the barangay level. And we're far from the point where automation is viable for everyone.

But then, we ask these questions with the assumption that everybody can adopt to the so-called "new normal". I'll say many - perhaps most - people would just want to get back to normal. Their lives are on hold, what with their livelihoods curtailed and their uncertainty through the roof. They were also caught unaware by the surprise (but necessary) declaration to put what now amounts to the whole country on lockdown, but unlike us - by that I mean me writing this, and you possibly reading this - they don't have the means to adjust accordingly. Their jobs can't be done at home. If their job are deemed essential, they'll have to deal with blockades hastily put together to make certain government officials look like they're on top of things. There are no safety nets for them, at least none that they think can get them through the daily non-grind.

The thing is, our government - actually, us as a country, us as a society - do not like the concept of safety nets. When you make a mistake, you're on your own. We thought that way as children playing in the streets outside our home. We thought that way as students trying to get a good grade. We thought that way as employees getting out of trouble. Well, most of the time - we do care about other's mistakes if our asses are also on the line, or if we know we can get something in return.

All right, I'll concede that's pretty cynical, and you'll likely disagree with it because you're not one of those people. But then, it is true. Just look at the debate raging over the government's hastily-cobbled financial assistance program. Look at the arguments over who should be receiving those cash handouts. Look at how the discussion has shifted towards how the poor are actually lazy, and therefore unable to climb up the ladder, and therefore not deserving of assistance, unlike, say, some angry person on a keyboard who worked his ass off but has also found himself in the unfortunate situation of having no livelihood and a lot of free time. It's their mistake they didn't do enough to get out of their rut. That's their problem.

Sure, that's not everyone's mindset, certainly not all of those in government. It's why some have been successful in pushing for welfare programs, but even that can be a steep hill to climb. There willalways be fears of such schemes fostering a mindset of dependency among its benefactors - how will they work hard to get out of their rut if we're always there to help them? And then there's our thing for patronage. Whatever help you get is thanks to so and so. Remember, in the next elections...

The uncertainty that stems from the sudden - but, once again, necessary, at the time - decision to pretty much halt the economy in the name of preventing this new disease from paralyzing us further is because we, as a society, do not like the idea of safety nets. The normal for us has always been us minding our own business, unless we can get something from minding others'. Perhaps a financial incentive, perhaps a sense of superiority? But as we've seen in the past few weeks, that can no longer stand, not when the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and everyone in the middle find themselves stuck with no place to go (and don't believe what your neighborhood call center says about opportunities). Perhaps the new normal should see the government take a more proactive - and, at the same time, more disinterested, at least when it comes to the reputation of certain politicians in charge - role in making sure its citizens are taken care of.

But then, that takes longer than the remaining two years of this administration. Also, nobody wants to have that conversation. Also, talking about technology is an easier way to go. Quick wins, as they say.

And your responses...

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