We Don’t Need to Return to Normal—We Need a New Normal [Op-Ed]

By Diallo Brooks May 15, 2020

Just three days after the COVID-19 fatality rates in the United States reached an unprecedented high, Donald Trump urged state governors during his daily “briefing” to re-open their economies and get back to normal life. Since then, as public health experts and the majority of Americans grow increasingly concerned about the dangers of reopening too soon, more than half of the states have reopened in some capacity.  

Trump’s push to restore normalcy is just the latest move in a long list of recklessness and leadership failures that have endangered us all. After all, what he means when he invokes a return to normalcy is sacrificing human lives to restore corporate profit and return to the systems that have not served us all equitably.

But during this historic moment, we must consider whether we want to sustain those models in a post-pandemic world. The old normal forced centuries of racial, social and economic injustice on people of color, low-income Americans, and other vulnerable communities. And the legacy of that sustained inequality has come to bear, as those communities—yet again—are hit hardest. If we don’t push for real change those disparities will only be compounded in the months and years to come. 

Right now, we have an opportunity to reimagine a new model—a new normal—that protects Americans equitably and brings us closer to the ideals of equality and justice.

During this crisis, many Americans are leading with those values on an individual level. The number of crowdfunding campaigns has exploded in recent months, and Americans have donated millions of dollars to help their neighbors and communities pay for hospital bills, rent, groceries and other basic needs. These heartwarming stories reveal our interconnectedness and our capacity to lead with our values, but they also reveal our government’s inaction to radically reform our institutions and systems to support those among us who are most in need.

For decades, Republican leaders have raised the specter of budget deficits to defend steep budget cuts to federal support programs, choosing instead to line the pockets of wealthy corporations and their CEOs. But over the past few months, as the economic impact of the pandemic was realized, Trump and his GOP allies were essentially forced to provide some aid to Americans. After decades of fighting federal assistance to maintain the status quo, the truth has emerged: Our government can respond swiftly and decisively in an effort to protect its people. It simply has chosen not to.

This pandemic has irrevocably changed our country. It has revealed how badly our systems need to change, but equally importantly, it’s shown us the power of human resilience, innovation, and solution-making in the absence of a people-driven government. 

Going back to the old normal would be a disservice to us all. Going forward, let’s strive to create a country that values all human life equally and provides safeguards and solutions to mitigate the suffering and injustice of “business as usual.” Because our country isn’t a business, and we find ourselves at this crossroads largely because of the business-driven models that prioritize corporate wellbeing over safety, equity and the welfare of all people.

We need and deserve more equitable systems—and we need new people at the helm to drive that change. Those who have been disproportionately affected by this crisis, whether due to racial and ethnic health disparities, poverty, or those who are working on the front lines right now and suffering physically and emotionally know firsthand the changes we need. Their lived experiences and perspectives are critically needed, at every level of leadership, to shape a people-focused government that prioritizes and protects us.

We can only be better if we do better. We can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines if we want real change. All of us must organize and make our voices heard at all levels of government. It’s time for us to create the change we want to see by making civic engagement central to our lives moving forward.

Let’s lift up the voices of those who have struggled unfairly for living amid systems that neglect their health, safety and wellbeing. Let’s think creatively about what we can all do to create a justice-focused new normal—for all of us. And let’s rid our system of those that stand in the way of equity and justice.

Diallo Brooks, People For’s senior director of outreach and partner engagement, brings 20 years of experience as a leader in the fight for social justice and civil rights. In his current position, Brooks serves as a national spokesperson on issues including civil rights, voting rights, and civic engagement.