Is this the new normal that we are going to have to get used to? No more chit-chat with random people. No handshakes. Little pocket-sized sanitiser dispensers to clean our hands every time we touch a surface outside (and inside) of our homes. I wonder how this new world will impact young people, the ones who were absent from the mall today. What will the perimeters be in their social lives? Will hanging out or going to clubs be taboo for them from now on?

I was witness to the most extraordinary scene over the weekend. A lady was pushing a well-laden Woolworths trolley towards the parking lot in Rosebank, Johannesburg. As she approached the perimeter of the parking lot, a young man, one of many, approached to help her. Her screech stopped him in his tracks. “Stop right there! Don’t come near me,” she said, pointing at a spot between her and the young man. She then took a R20 note from her wallet and placed it on the floor, all the while keeping her eye on him.

“What the hell is going on,” I thought to myself. It’s broad daylight and there are many people in the immediate vicinity. She steps away from her trolley and the young man picks the money up off the floor, and follows her. In my perplexed state, I follow both of them.

A few metres further on, the madam remotely pops open the boot of her car and points the young man towards it. All the while an appropriate physical distance is maintained between the two. The man then proceeds to load the boot of the car with the various bags from the trolley. Done, he steps away, as the woman climbs into her car. As she drives off, the man catches my eye, and with a wry smile, he shrugs his shoulders and walks off.

I hang around for a while. I’m trying to make sense of what I had just seen. I look at the people around me. There’s the group of young men waiting, I suppose, for the next person they can offer their services to, but mostly everyone seems to be in a hurry. Many are wearing face masks. I get the impression that for those scurrying along, the belief must be, do what you have to do, and get back to your site of social isolation as quickly as possible.

I remind myself that it is a Saturday and this space would normally be buzzing with people. With shoppers, the odd busker playing music, young people meeting before a movie, the adjacent coffee shops and pizza places humming with conversation. This is my favourite Joburg spot for people watching. Now, it is empty.

I enter the mall for the first time since the lockdown almost a month ago. The scene that greets me is quite weird. The well-lit corridors have barriers across them and are completely empty. I approach one of the security personnel who points me in the direction of the food store. Every other retail store in the mall is shut, except for the two large food chains and the pharmacy. Instead of using any one of the many entrances and exits, only one door is used to allow customers entry and the exit is from another door.

There is a queue of people patiently waiting to enter the store. Everyone is maintaining a distance from the next person. Nobody speaks. Even those who appear to be together lean their heads close to each other and whisper. Periodically, those in front are allowed in and the rest shuffles forward waiting their turn. It is as if we are participating in some sacred ritual. The face masks add to the surrealism of the scene.

Inside the store, it is no different. Eyes straight ahead as we move up and down the aisles, grabbing what we need. In the checkout queue, the procedure is pretty much the same. Physical distance is maintained, you wait your turn, you pay and you go. I wink at the cashier and apologise, that because of the mask, she probably can’t see my friendly smile. She nods her head in response and I can see that she is smiling from behind her mask.

On the drive home, I start thinking about the earlier scene in the parking lot. Is this the new normal that we are going to have to get used to? No more chit-chat with random people. No handshakes. Little pocket-sized sanitiser dispensers to clean our hands every time we touch a surface outside (and inside) of our homes. I wonder how this new world will impact young people, the ones who were absent from the mall today. What will the perimeters be in their social lives? Will hanging out or going to clubs be taboo for them from now on?

Certainly, I don’t think the cinemas are going to survive. We already know that going to work will be different. How do we configure the workspaces? We also know that we don’t have to be face to face to have a meeting. Can you have a braai with friends and maintain the six-foot apart rule?

I’ve been looking forward to going down to my local coffee shop for a read and a bit of a chat over coffee. I wonder if that’s ever going to be possible again in the near future. All of this is particularly hard if you live on your own. In these past few weeks, I have realised how much I miss the company of others. Exercising in the backyard is not the same as going to the gym. Having Netflix and Showmax, and a hundred other channels available doesn’t mean there’s always something to watch on TV.

In fact, TV without sport is not TV at all. I enjoy reading. Normally I’d put time aside to read, either for leisure or for work. Reading to fill or pass the time is not the same thing.

Easing the lockdown might allay some of the anxiety I feel, but I am concerned about my health in a way that I’ve never been in the past. Our medical experts predict that the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa will probably peak in September 2020, still a long way off. We are told that finding a vaccine is more than a year away and until then, all our current social protocols remain in play.

The man begging at the traffic light is also wearing a mask. DM

this article was also published at:
https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-04-the-new-normal-is-going-to-take-some-getting-used-to/