The death of normalcy

Nothing is normal anymore. Not in the past couple of weeks. And certainly it won’t be for the next month or two, probably longer.

We are all virtually under house arrest – but for our own good. Since March 18, Malaysia has been on partial lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The government is loath to use the word “lockdown”, even “partial lockdown” and feels more comfortable calling it “movement control”, and in the few places where people are not allowed to move out of their houses to even buy food, “enhanced movement control”.

Perhaps government leaders don’t want to alarm the people; or perhaps they don’t want to scare themselves.

Whatever you call it, we are living in the opposite of normal times. “Abnormal” may not be quite right as it normally has a negative connotation, while “uncommon” doesn’t do justice to the gravity of the situation. I’d like to call it “unnormal” times – the word is jarring enough on our ears to indicate the disorientation most of us feel in the current situation and an easy word to understand, even though you won’t find it in the dictionary.

We are used to going where we please, eating where we like, even staying out the entire night if we so desire; we are used to seeing the spouse in the early morning and after work in the evening or night; we are used to packing off our children to school and letting teachers shoulder the burden of looking after them for at least eight hours.

All that has changed.

Just to give an example of this momentous change, let us look at exercising. We have always been told by health officials, doctors, even the government to go out and exercise to stay healthy; and we have been encouraged to take up sporting activities. You must walk at least 30 minutes a day to stay healthy, we have heard experts say.

Now, we are being arrested if we step outside the house to exercise. Anyone jogging in the park or playing football to maintain his or her health is being arrested. Don’t exercise outside your house, the government is now telling us.

Can we blame the authorities for taking such severe measures? As of yesterday, 2,766 people have been infected and 43 have died due to the novel coronavirus.

This is a new experience for not just the doctors and health officials but also for us. The entire country has been affected, some more badly. There is fear in the air. We just don’t know who the next victim will be; it might even be me, or you.

Right now, we can’t eat outside or go for a movie or hang out with friends.

As the government continues to battle the Covid-19 virus, there are likely to be more restrictions on our freedoms and our normal activities. I fear that human rights will be thrown to the winds.

And we’ll have to adapt to new ways of doing things, such as working from home if the nature of our job allows us to do so.

Let’s take a look at some ways in which families are affected by the movement control order (MCO) aimed at arresting the spread of the new coronavirus.

Probably for the first time since their honeymoon, couples are finding themselves looking at each other the whole day, every day. If you think this will result in couples becoming more loving or more understanding, you may not be aware of the dynamics of sharing a small space for 24 hours for weeks with the same person, especially if you are uncertain whether you’ll get paid at the end of the month or if you’ll have a job when this nightmare is over.

And only those who have children will know the effort, the vexation of looking after a bunch of energetic kids prancing about here and there and who cannot understand why daddy refuses to take them to the playground or why mummy is unable to cook all their usual favourites.

The familiar routine of going to work – which most of us take for granted – is no longer there to sustain us. It can be disorienting for many of us, as the normal structure of our lives, of our time, has been upended. Sure, we can get up later than usual if we are working from home; sure, we have more time on our hands; sure, we don’t have to navigate through nightmarish traffic.

But how long will this feeling last? Five days? 10 days? Two weeks? Most of us will soon be bored. We are likely to end up watching inane television shows and dramas. But even this will bore us if repeated day after day after day for weeks.

A friend from Sungai Petani yesterday phoned me to say he was totally bored and that he spends his time pacing up and down the house, watching TV, and checking his WhatsApp messages. And I received a WhatsApp message from another friend saying that most people have now gone into an import and export business: they import a message from one WhatsApp group and export it to another.

Jokes aside, I especially feel sorry for mothers and wives, as they not only have to cook and clean the house but also keep their rambunctious children occupied, or at least watch over them, as well as nag their husbands against slouching on the sofa while watching movies on TV or to give a helping hand with housework.

But the husband may be escaping into the worlds that movies or Netflix dramas offer simply to avoid worrying about the immediate future, especially if they are private sector employees. Who knows, he may be one of those likely to lose his job once the episode is over as bosses work to cut costs. This may be the season’s finale as far as his job is concerned.

Or he may be one of the many small and medium-scale business bosses seeking escape from worrying about how to pay the wages of his workers or if he can remain afloat in these troubled times, especially since the global economy is down and recession is a possibility.

Of course, if he is a government servant, he has nothing to worry about. Unless the world ends, civil servants are assured of their salaries at the end of every month. Now I understand the old Tamil saying which, translated, means even if you have to look after chickens, make sure you look after government chickens.

I suppose the happiest of the lot will be the children as they don’t have to go to school and now have all the free time in the world to give their parents a headache. Teenagers, meanwhile, may initially like the free time but will soon get bored as they can’t venture out of their house.

The end result is that families – and the family is the foundational structure of society – are likely to become more easily aggravated, agitated and angry as the days progress. The MCO is not only going to take a nasty toll on families, but also on the nation, especially if the government fails to negotiate this crisis honestly and cleverly.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.