COVID-19 and the challenge of adjusting to the New Normal, By Isaac N. Obasi




The New Normal: with face mask and physical distancing: Governor El-Rufai and CAN President Reverend Supo Ayokunle flanked by some other officials. (Picture: KDSG Media). 

The phrase new normal is not as new as many in Nigeria and in other parts of the world may think. Actually, the use of the phrase predates the period of this novel ravaging coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, its frequent usage has become polarised in this COVID-19 period. Simply put, the phrase ‘new normal’ encapsulates all that is generally known now as the non-pharmaceutical protocols in the war against the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. 

History has it that as far back as 1966, an American author, Robert A. Heinlein, used the phrase ‘new normal’ in his novel titled The Moon is a harsh Mistress, to describe a life situation “free of the Authority, free of guards, free of troops stationed on us, free of passports and searches and arbitrary arrests” (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_normal). And in later years, the phrase has been used in America, China and other places particularly by the powerful media of the world. As an American phrase, ‘new normal’ is used very aptly to mean a “previously unfamiliar or atypical situation that has become standard, usual, or expected” (See https://www.lexico.com/definition/the_new_normal). 

In the context of COVID-19 pandemic (with no vaccine yet), the concept of ‘new normal’ refers to the expected new ways of behaviour that promote social and physical distancing among people, regular washing of hands with soap under a running water, avoidance of handshaking and hugging, use of alcohol-based sanitiser to clean the hands after touching surfaces, sneezing into one’s elbows or with tissue paper, and a host of other new behavioural practices aimed at stopping the spread of the deadly COVID-19. ‘New normal’ behaviour emerges against the background that when people adopt new ways of interacting with some others for a long period of time, such new ways of interaction will become culturally ingrained or habitual to the extent that they also become normal way of doing things, as the word ‘new’ is removed from normal. 

Put differently, as a never-ending or evolving phenomenon, a new normal behaviour today may become so deeply and culturally ingrained that it becomes normal tomorrow, and in which case, it losses the title ‘new’ attached to it. This means that the expected new normal behaviour under COVID-19 may vanish so quickly if a vaccine is discovered in the nearest future. But the longer the COVID-19 lasts without a vaccine, the new normal behaviour will gradually become culturally ingrained and also become difficult to change. This is why a consistent, persuasive, passionate and spirited appeal or message is needed to change behaviour towards a desired new normal. This persuasive approach for behavioural adjustment to the new normal is also needed because old habits die hard, as the saying goes. 

This leads us to the challenge people in Nigeria are having adjusting to the expected new normal behaviour needed to stop the spread of the COVID-19. If we may recall, Nigerians generally have been finding it difficult to follow the passionate appeal regularly made by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to wear face mask always and to maintain physical distancing when in a large group. Unfortunately, the compliance level has been low even among those expected to be role models and who should lead by personal example.

There is definitely no one best way of fighting the war against COVID-19 as there are both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical approaches. The pharmaceutical protocols which are curative or treatment-based are administered by health experts, professionals and workers to fight the war on people’s behalf. The non-pharmaceutical protocols which are preventive or deterrent-based are to be followed by everyone else  excluding no one whether big or small, rulers or ruled, high/mighty or the lowly. All in this category are expected to join in fighting the war through the strict observance of the non-pharmaceutical protocols. 

Although, these protocols are commonsensical in nature, they, however, demand a high degree of personal responsibility on the part of everyone to observe them. And above all, the observance requires some sacrifices or inconveniences, financial cost (expenses incurred in buying face mask or sanitiser for example), as well as attitudinal and behavioural modification or changes to one’s life. But embarrassingly, many in authority (both secular and religious) behave as if they are exempted from complying with the non-pharmaceutical protocols.  

Picture by Kaduna State Government Media (KDSG) August 18, 2020, via https://www.thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2020/08/18/photos-governor-el-rufai-receives-can-leadership/

The above picture of Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State with officials of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) who paid him a visit in Kaduna on Monday, 17 August 2020, did not comply with the expected new normal behaviour, as there was absence of physical distancing and many on the right of the picture were not wearing face masks. Interestingly, this picture is full of people who ought to know better and show exemplary leadership no matter the situation. Taking the group picture is good for record purposes but it is not more important than preserving life through complying with the COVID-19 new normal behaviour which those in both secular and religious authorities have been asking the people to follow. The picture is a clear case of state protocol officials failing in their duty to enforce COVID-19 protocols. This they would have respectfully done with a gentle humour reminding the big officials about the COVID-19 protocols.

A day before this picture was taken, another embarrassing example of a flagrant violation of COVID-19 protocols happened at a religious service in a very large Pentecostal worship centre in Ogun State where religious activities had just been lifted by the state government. This service was the first church service following the lifting of the ban by the Ogun State Government. One therefore expected a high level of compliance with the COVID-19 protocols by religious bodies that had been clamouring for the lifting of the ban. But during this service, (as seen later in the news on television), the officiating bishop was characteristically moving around preaching to his large congregation but with people in front (possibly pastors and other senior officials) without wearing face masks like himself also. Another case of violation was that the bishop, who was moving freely was touching people in clear demonstration of his sermon (though not a bad idea anyway for an effective preacher or teacher) but he was speaking closely to them in this and also raising the hands of some of them up (in such demonstration) without a face mask on either his face or those he was closely talking and demonstrating with. 

The last example of open and flagrant violation of COVID-19 protocols is found in the Edo 2020 electioneering campaigns where both the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) (the two biggest parties) have been attracting large crowd of people (in a sardine-like manner) in total disregard of the COVID-19 protocols. Ironically, the parties promised to obey strictly the protocols before the commencement of the campaigns. These violations should not be allowed to continue. But who will call the parties to order?  

Some critics may say that this column is always using religious and government officials more in citing cases of violation of COVID-19 protocols. Such critics are right. The column uses it deliberately to make the point that those in authority must show good examples to encourage or even motivate a critical mass of people to follow and obey the protocols.

One sad lesson this column has taken note of since the period of this coronavirus pandemic, is that leadership-by-example is very scarce in Nigeria. It is seriously in short supply not only in Nigeria anyway, but also in sizeable number in other places across world. And this is a major hindrance to good governance, as leaders can hardly offer what they do not have.  

Prof. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com      

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