At the beginning of March, there were plenty of signs that normal life would soon be upended in the United States: The Chinese government had quarantined a city of 11 million; the Italian government banned public gatherings and travel. But in the United States, stores were open, the NBA was in session, and the first stay-at-home orders were still weeks away. Then, on March 11, Tom Hanks fell ill in Australia. The avatar of milquetoast American normality had succumbed to what we were only beginning to call Covid-19 at the time. As I reflect back on it now, after months of social isolation, his fate looms unnaturally large in my memory, like the last night in an apocalyptic movie. That night, President Trump shut down travel from 26 European countries. A sensation of crisis abruptly set in, nesting itself within the slow, lurching crisis that was already American life. It was overnight norm erosion.
In the months since then, Covid-19 has disrupted what we now remember as “normal life.” Most of us probably want to get back to “normal,” but no one really knows what we’d be getting back to, whether we can, or if we even should.
In early May, a man protesting Arizona’s lockdown order said that he and his fellow demonstrators wanted to “get to work and lead their lives like normal.” Here, normality seems at first to be something dull, concrete, and sensible—someone struggling to make rent would, understandably, like his or her lost income back. But as this protester uses it, normalcy is aspirational, belonging more to the realm of fantasy than to workaday realities. Linked, as it now is, to reopening the economy, “normal” also implies a fantasy of boundless prosperity and convenience, the ability to shop and be served at a large store in the suburbs. To lead our lives like normal means, in large part, to return to those illusions.
The lure of the normal is that, as lousy as it often was, we were at least used to it. Familiarity was the centerpiece of Joe Biden’s political appeal, after all. He campaigned on a promise to return the United States to a time before Trump pivoted from reality television into politics. On a February debate stage, Biden told Democrats he didn’t understand what was so troubling about the past: “The politics of the past, I think, were not all that bad.”
The swift collapse of normalcy in March shows just how flimsy the facade of the normal really was. For most of us, normal life wasn’t too great to begin with, in ways the pandemic has only exacerbated. You thought your local school system was grossly under-resourced in January? How about now, when every kid needs a computer, fast Wi-Fi, heroic patience, and parents with abundant free time? Meanwhile, the places most ravaged by Covid-19 make their own map of American cruelty: Elmhurst, Detroit, New Orleans, the Navajo Nation, nursing homes, prisons. The new normal, there, looks too much like the old one to simply exchange them.
Don’t get me wrong: Normal life had its charms. But no matter how much I miss the comforts of slow nights at a bar and an untroubled Tom Hanks, I’d trade them both for cheap housing and free health care. Even better: Why not have all four? Life in isolation, with all its novel, quickly assimilated routines—of handwashing, or strapping on masks—is a good example of how suddenly a new “normal life” can arrive to snatch away an old one—and how quickly the impossible can start to feel like normal.