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Jennifer O'Connell: ‘Back to normal by August’? No thanks

Much of the old normal was broken, dysfunctional, inequitable or just not fit for purpose

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar predicted this week things will be "pretty much back to normal by August". In his address to the nation at the end of April, Taoiseach Micheál Martin referred wistfully to a "degree of normality" returning. If they're right, it will represent a colossal missed opportunity.

It's easy to forget, as even Dr Tony Holohan permits us to get within two metres of hope, how much of the old normal was broken, dysfunctional, inequitable or just not fit for purpose.

The 9-5, factory-floor grind of office life. The health system lurching from one winter to another in a permanent state of crisis. The dysfunctional rental market. The burden of care in society still falling predominantly on women. The climate emergency.

Covid has allowed us to imagine new ways of doing some things, but it has also highlighted inequities that are resistant to change, and that may take more than a pandemic to fix.

Here are some things that may never go back to normal:

Working lives: The rigid factory-floor model of office life has been around since the industrial revolution. But Covid has demanded questions about what an office is really for if you don't actually have to go there for work. Is it for collaboration, mentoring, access to wifi and a functioning printer or just an excuse to get dressed properly? And if so, how much of that do any of us actually need?

Not every employer is keen on allowing remote working to continue, but workers who have had a taste of autonomy and a commute-free life will be reluctant to fully cede it, however their employers feel. Expect new office infrastructure, new policies and a complete overhaul of our working lives.

The Leaving Cert: The alternatives may not be perfect, but after two summers free of the traditional Leaving Cert there will be little appetite to go back to the giant memory test in which everything hinges on one three-hour paper. The fact that just two per cent of students have opted to sit only written exams shows what they think of the "tough but fair" system. Some kind of hybrid model could be the future.

Health system: The public could see that the health service was creaking – even if not many were aware this meant public health doctors had to use pens, paper and Excel spreadsheets to track outbreaks, or that there was no grade of consultant in public health medicine, something now set to finally be rectified with the creation of over 80 new posts.

Covid showed what could happen when the system was forced to become more efficient – a winter with no trollies on hospital corridors, for example, although the price will be paid for that by almost one million people who will be on waiting lists for care by the end of the year. The service is getting a record €20.6 billion from the exchequer this year, which the HSE says will allow it to deliver “permanent and enduring improvements”. This is one area of Irish life that must never be allowed to go back to normal.

Care of older people: One of the largely unsung wins of the health service this year are measures that allow older people to stay for longer in their homes. The HSE has been able to "achieve in a year what we wouldn't have done probably in 10 years", according to one person working in the area, including 5 million extra home-support hours and, crucially, a shift in thinking about long-term care needs.

City life: The hollowing out of urban centres has been accelerated by Covid, and as government supports are removed, some wounds will settle into permanent scars without drastic action. Ireland has always been poor at thinking of creative ways to use outdoor spaces, but that will need to change if towns and cities are to survive.

We need more micro-markets for food, craft or antiques, more film screenings and lunchtime concerts, safer cycling routes, more places to just sit. The experience of Israel has shown that we will happily pack out pubs, theatres, venues and restaurants as soon as it's safe, but if we want them to go back to normal the sector will need ongoing support too.

And a few that are less likely to change:

Housing market: Why didn't rents in Dublin plummet during Covid, with half a million unemployed and the freedom to work remotely from anywhere? As always, it's due to our dysfunctional housing market. Rent-pressure zones mean some landlords would sooner let apartments lie empty than reduce rents.

There has been a lot of political outrage about investors buying up entire suburban housing estates this week, but little focus on the apartment blocks that funds have been quietly snapping up for over a decade – perhaps because, as Miriam Lord points out, apartment dwellers aren't setting down "strong roots in the electoral register".

It shouldn’t take a pandemic to show why safe, adequate housing is a fundamental right, and it might take more than a pandemic to fix it.

Women's lives: It is news to no one that the burden of care in both society and private homes still falls disproportionately on women. Covid just exacerbated underlying inequities. "Gender equality has taken a big step back in the last year," said Sharon Lambert, lecturer in applied psychology at University College Cork, recently.

Until women make up more than one quarter of the Dáil, the kind of societal change needed will be hard to achieve.

As “normal” comes hurtling towards us it feels increasingly like the opportunity to imagine a better way of doing things is slipping away.

We should try to hold that thought a while longer. Going straight back to the way things used to be would be a huge failure of imagination, and a wasted opportunity.

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