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What should a ‘new normal’ look like?

A more compassionate, more equal ‘normal’ in Utah will build a more resilient community

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Pedestrians wear masks as they walk in downtown Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Coronavirus has brought pain, disruption and some serious questions. While, as a whole, Utah has fared better than elsewhere, none of us has emerged unscathed. A year later and as vaccines roll out, an “end” is in sight. But how that end manifests is up for discussion.

What should “normal” look like in Utah?

The economic crisis that followed the initial surge of cases in March of last year lingers. Data shows that over 15,000 Salt Lake County residents are still without work compared to the same time last year; small businesses that haven’t shut their doors for good still suffer from reduced economic activity even as retail giants grow; front-line and essential workers continue to leave home each day risking their health and the health of their households; food insecurity and homelessness are far too real for far too many.

But none of these problems are novel; rather, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated extant issues, laying bare the shortcomings and inequity in our high-performing economy. The old normal was rife with inequality, with homelessness and with poverty. Returning to that would be a travesty.

Fortunately, we still have a choice. From within the crisis, we can build a new, more compassionate normal.

Using the resources provided in the American Rescue Plan, we have a tremendous opportunity to shape our future toward becoming a more resilient, equitable and compassionate society. From within the crisis, it can be difficult to see what possible post-COVID-19 futures might look like. While not comprehensive and in no particular order, the following questions can guide our imaginings: 

How can we provide meaningful, thriving-wage work to all residents?

As office space becomes less necessary, how do we repurpose empty buildings to provide affordable and safe housing for all residents?

How can we build a more robust, equitable and affordable transit system?

How can we ensure that all parents have affordable, safe and reliable child care options?

How can we ensure that all people have adequate sick leave and quality health insurance?

How can we include everyone in our economy in meaningful and equitable ways?

How can we provide all residents with sufficient healthy, affordable food?

Now is the time to create our new normal — a normal that embraces bold ideas and new ways of thinking about old problems.

How do we take care of each other as a community? A society? A state? And what does this care look like?

These are questions that needed answering before COVID-19, but are more salient now. Questions like these must guide our thinking if we hope to create a more resilient community. With vaccines rolling out, the health crisis we are facing will pass. The chronic symptoms, however, will not leave us without sincere and serious effort. Failing to address these concerns will continue to leave community members behind.

Now is the time to create our new normal — a normal that embraces bold ideas and new ways of thinking about old problems. We need a bold, future-oriented response, yes, but we also need a compassion-oriented response — a care-oriented response. As we work out this historically monumental task, we must ensure no one is forgotten.

Doing so, we can embrace a new normal, knowing that we have built more than just a resilient economy, but a resilient community.

Ruedigar Matthes is the economic development manager for Salt Lake County. He resides with his family in Salt Lake City.