Harsh Realities

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

The challenge of accepting that the old normal is gone and that a new normal is emerging is in not understanding what the old normal was and why it is no more. Or, perhaps, we should not accept the old normal as gone when we refuse or are reluctant to let go of the fundamentals on which the old normal was built. Apparently, because of our own contradictions, we were only unquestioning victims to using buzz words or terminologies whose meanings we were never sure of.

Old normal. What was the old normal? Before we can say that anything drastic happened to the old normal, or that it is gone, we ought to reflect what the old normal was to us in the first place. Why don’t we take a short journey back, just several months ago, and agree what the key features of the old normal were to us Filipinos? I believe that there are many versions of what that old normal was. To some, the old normal is gone. To others, it is still very much here.

Or, to most, our understanding of what is normal is merely skin deep, surface manifestations of our daily lives.

To be fair, the surface manifestations or physical expressions of our daily lives are our first understanding of what is normal. Speaking as a resident of Metro Manila, as maybe 20% of Filipinos are, what were the major features of our daily lives prior to Covid-19? We can start with a few but common metropolitan life conditions like heavy traffic, unusually long travel times to and from work, the painful lack of mass transport, the unbearable heat of summer, and the floods of the rainy season. These were daily traits of the old normal. Are they gone, or substantially changed?

Illegal drug trade. Millions of drug dependents. Violence in the countryside from a communist rebellion to terrorism in some areas in Mindanao. Corruption and inefficiency in government. Questionable integrity and justice among lawyers, judges, and justices of the courts, or law enforcers of all kinds. Were these constant conditions that had been tracked, not only by us but even more by foreign watchdogs? Are these same conditions still present?

I have pointed out above the major negative issues plaguing our society for decades. They are about the present administration because it is in charge today. Also, its primary leader, President Rodrigo R. Duterte, did run on the promise that he would address the drug scourge and government corruption. But to be sure, they are about all other administrations before Duterte, all the way back to our political independence from the United States. In other words, they are long-standing problems that were embedded in the old normal. Are these still with us?

Everything was not negative in the old normal. In fact, if we can see the threaded statistics on poverty, hunger, and economic development, there will be many outstanding achievements. A very bright light, too, is the resolution of the almost 50-year MNLF and MILF secessionist movement. Our deepest hopes pray that the Basic Bangsamoro Law will begin the desired path to lasting peace. It must be said, too, that our economic performance was beyond average to become the actual envy of most countries in the world. In other words, the old normal was a mixture of negative and positive conditions. The new normal will have that as well.

I do not intend to do a critique or praise the political leadership, now and the previous ones. I do intend, however, to try and make all who read this sit back and reflect on the use of terminologies though we know little of their meaning. Because when I talk of the old normal, I mean a certain mixture of realities and assumptions. And when I mention new normal, it will have to discard some old features and include new patterns.

Covid-19 upset the old normal, badly. The old normal was very heavily grounded on face-to-face exchange even though digital technology had been pounding on our doors for quite some time. A good example remains the ATM or the automation of a crucial banking feature. I first saw the ATM about forty years ago. Even as the ATM machines began to proliferate over the last four decades, it had early on given the signal that automation would take over the banking protocols. That Covid-19 is forcing us to go digital and as cashless as possible was a signal given decades ago. Did we listen? Maybe, somewhat; but today, yes, through Zoom.

The traditional challenges that the world of nations often centered on were poverty and hunger aside from war and different forms of violence. In the Philippines, serious headway was being made on these two major challenges if we are to accept official figures from government. However, one runaway virus reveals how fragile we remain in both poverty and hunger. Worse, it is not just hunger that hangs like a sword of Damocles over our heads but food security itself. When global trade is disrupted, we cannot trade food with other nations and we need to depend on ourselves. Can we do this? Yes, just plant, plant, plant.

The old normal was already beginning to show us how deep a problem we had as a people, as a nation. The drug scourge fed on the prevalence of corruption and the poverty of tens of millions. The drug industry may have been the most powerful social, economic, and political force in the country if we go by the extent to which its tentacles influence and manipulate society.

After the impact of illegal drugs had been rising the scourge of mental disease, the rise of depression, and suicide among our youth in all schools, public and private. Both drug dependency and mental un-health cannot be but consequences of a deeper cancer eating away at our national soul.

If there is a national confessional, Covid-19 must be driving us to go to there.