Copyright: Martin Punaks 2019

  • Martin Punaks

Covid 19: when the abnormal becomes the new normal



If there is one thing that everyone in the whole entire planet would agree on, right now, it is that the world has gone totally crazy in a very short space of time. How many of us honestly thought a month ago that we would be seriously self-isolating, unable to travel anywhere, and preparing to say goodbye to our parents and grandparents as they get shut off from the outside world? I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I suspect you didn’t either.


The only experience I have had in my lifetime remotely similar to this was living through the Nepal Earthquake in 2015 (I lived and worked in Nepal as an NGO worker for six years). Like the corona virus pandemic, we always knew an earthquake was a possibility, but we somehow didn’t believe it would really happen. Then one day it did. Whilst the earthquake itself was scary, the days that followed became weirder and weirder as we adjusted to a new warped reality. Seeing disfigured bodies lying on stretchers outside the hospital and commiserating with friends for lost relatives became normal. We all became amateur experts at assessing the structural damage to buildings and we learned a new language of terms like ‘emergency phase’, ‘tarps’ and ‘social protection cluster’. When one of the US Marines responsible for looking after us at the emergency shelter told us that we would continue to experience aftershocks for one year, my friend turned to me and said, “How can we live like this?”. But we did live like this. The aftershocks, the anxiety, the strong friendships we formed, and the moments of joy we found in working together, became the new normal. Ultimately most of us came out the other end, and we were fine.


I now live in the UK, supposedly a stable country where nothing scary usually happens, so the last few days have shocked me as much as anyone. A lot of people I know are unsettled, worried, frightened for themselves and their loved ones, or for the impact on their livelihoods. So in case it is of any help, I wanted to put pen to paper and share some of my learning from the Nepal Earthquake on adapting to a radically changed environment. Here are my seven tips on how get used to the abnormal becoming the new normal.



1. Acceptance. It is a simple word but hard to do. Our lives are going to change radically over the next few months, and possibly much longer. Maybe we were planning Sunday lunch with our parents, only to remember we are not allowed to see them. Maybe we were looking forward to our holiday, only to remember it won’t happen. Acceptance doesn’t mean we need to be happy with the situation we are in, but instead of getting frustrated we say: “Okay, that’s the way it is for now, what can I do as an alternative?”. It’s like waiting for the bus and it not coming. Getting frustrated doesn’t make it come any faster, so why waste the energy on being frustrated. It won’t be like this forever.


2. Focus on what we can do, not what we can’t. Sure, there’s a lot we can’t do at the moment which we normally take for granted. But there is a lot we can do which normally we complain we don’t have the time to do. Isn’t it amazing that we have smart TVs on which we can watch just about anything we want? When was the last time we had the space to spend an evening with a glass of wine and a good novel? We still have more delicious food in our cupboards than most people do in the world. Maybe it’s time to take those cookery books off the shelf, which we hardly ever use, and learn how to make a proper curry or bake a Sicilian orange cake. We can play games like Monopoly and Risk, do some gardening, and lo and behold, we can even talk to each other! As for our work, just imagine how hard it would be if we didn’t have email, Skype and WhatsApp. There are many things to be grateful for in this crisis, and it’s good for our mental health to remember this sometimes.


3. Volunteer to help those more vulnerable than us. In the last few days volunteer groups have sprung up all over the UK in local communities with the aim of helping vulnerable people who are self-isolating and need food, prescriptions, and so on. I went to my first meeting yesterday and met some lovely people from my South London community, where normally hardly anyone speaks to each other. It is going to be logistically interesting figuring out how to leave bags of shopping outside people’s doors without coming into contact with them, but that’s all part of the adventure. We are figuring it out as we go along. It’s entrepreneurial, it’s grassroots, it’s exciting – it feels like we are part of something bigger, something important, and it evokes that almost mythical Blitz spirit that our grandparents told us so much about. Rather than worrying about the problems Covid 19 is creating, if we put our energies into helping our fellow men and women, there is proven evidence that it is good for our mental wellbeing.


A leaflet from my local CV19 volunteer group to help vulnerable people in our community.


4. Follow the advice of the experts on “flattening the curve”. Terms like “self-isolate” and “flattening the curve” have suddenly become the lingua franca for CV19 Britain. If you don’t already know these terms, then get with the story! Watch this brilliant video which explains it all – and shows us why it’s so important to practice social distancing, washing our hands regularly, and self-isolating if we become ill. It’s not about giving into fear, but about protecting those more vulnerable than us who are at real risk from this disease. As someone once said: “It’s not about what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”!


5. We are all in this together, and nobody really knows the solution. Let’s face the facts: nobody really knows how this is going to pan out, and nobody can say with 100% certainty that a particular approach is going to be the silver bullet to solve the crisis. That being said, there are many experienced epidemiological experts out there giving us advice which we would be foolish to ignore. But there are many questions still to be answered, such as how we balance social distancing with positive mental health and maintaining our livelihoods (as a self-employed person this is something I am very conscious of). There are going to be differences of opinion on all these issues, and this is all an important part of the process of figuring out as a human race how best we move beyond this challenge. Having constructive and critical debates is important and builds our ideas as a collective so we can find solutions. But descending into conflict and blame is not going to help anyone and just take away valuable time and energy. I have no doubt that conflicts and blame will come – we are human after all – but the more of us that decide not to get drawn into these the better.


6. Ride the emotional rollercoaster and appreciate the moments of joy. Our adrenaline and emotions are going to be all over the place in the coming weeks and months. Some of us will experience loss of loved ones or businesses, and there will be periods of darkness for us all. But these never last, and there will be periods of joy and humour as well. Already I find myself laughing at jokes from friends about how they have been practicing social distancing most of their lives, which is why I hardly ever see them! We are going to need our friends, families and social networks more than ever before – albeit perhaps over the telephone or Skype. Ride the emotional rollercoaster and remember that the scary times never last forever. Look for opportunities for learning and self-growth.


7. See this as an opportunity, not a disaster. If we decide to see this as a disaster, then it probably will be one. But if we choose to see it as an opportunity, then we can make it one. How we choose to frame this in our minds is important and will be reflected in our actions and their outcomes. Trend forecaster, Li Edelkoort, has spoken eloquently about how the crisis offers a “blank page for a new beginning”. Whilst being realistic about the likely economic meltdown, she sees this as an opportunity for a better system to come out of it at the end. She cites the environmental benefits of less flying, social benefits of more time at home enjoying simple pleasures, and opportunities for better labour conditions. She says:


"For several years we have understood that in order to survive as a species and to keep the planet going we need to make draconian changes to the way we live, travel, consume and entertain… But somehow the human psyche is resistant and wants to test if things will just dissipate by themselves, waiting and biding our time while we are doing business as usual. Therefore the sudden stop on all of this by the virus takes decision making out of our hands and will just slow things down.... We are no longer used to doing things without rushing, waiting for answers, searching for solutions nor producing in our backyards. Improvisation skills and creativity will become the highest assets".


There are examples of this in history too, such as the Second World War, which from out of its horrors were born the United Nations, human rights, the European Union, the end of colonialism, the welfare state, women’s equality, and so on. In some Eastern philosophies there is a concept of life being a cycle of creation and destruction. Destruction is not negative; it destroys the imperfections of the world, paving the way for beneficial change.

On the 25th April it will be the five year anniversary of the 2015 Nepal Earthquake. On this day I will be remembering the 9,000 people who died in Nepal. But I will also be raising a glass to the Nepali people who survived, picked themselves up, and rebuilt their houses and their livelihoods again. They made Nepal into a more resilient and stronger country than it was before. Let us learn from the Nepalis, and the millions of people around the world, and throughout history, who have suffered and survived, and come back even stronger. This will be us in the not too distant future.


A view from Nepal.