The New Normal… On what we risk tomorrow with the decisions we make today.

Recently, my family and I took a much-needed weekend trip away. After much back and forth regarding current infection levels and the risks of hotel-based versus self-catering accommodation we eventually came to the decision that breaking our collective cabin fever was in the best interest of all involved. We threw the kids and newly vaccinated grandparents into the car and headed off to Sun City for a few days of socially distanced fun in the sun.

I had expected that the experience would be novel for many of the family – especially my husband, who had never been to Sun City before, and for my eldest daughter, who has spent the last year of school vacations confined to our home and was itching to ‘go somewhere’. What I had not anticipated, was the reaction of my youngest daughter to the experience.

While I had fully expected there to be a sense of awe regarding the valley of the waves, I had completely taken for granted this little person’s limited exposure to ‘everyday’ aspects of travel and tourism.

To be honest, I feel a bit bad that I had not thought of this in advance. With the benefit of hindsight though, I can now be more cognisant of these things going forward.

You see, now two and a half, this young girl had spent more than half of her life in lockdown. Her ‘normal’ was one largely comprised of home-based isolation. And in retrospect, I had underestimated what impact this would have on her in a setting like Sun City.

For most of the weekend, she was completely overwhelmed. She was overwhelmed by the scale of the place (her sole experience being our home, her creche, and maybe a handful of outings to the shops). She was overwhelmed by all the people – far more than she had ever seen in one place, despite the fact that Sun City was on this weekend by no means busy (we went at the tail end of winter and just as travel restrictions were being eased). It was incredible to see her experience as completely extraordinary things we had taken for granted as ‘normal’ occurrences. More than this, what set off alarm bells for me, was that she was completely unprepared for and truly afraid of two things: escalators and elevators.

It struck me that while the rest of the family use these two glorious inventions without a second thought, for this tiny person, relatively new to the world and especially to what just two years prior would have been considered normal, everyday life, the fact that the stairs and floor could move of their own volition was nothing short of mind blowing. Truth be told, I think the few rides we took on these might have been the highlight of the trip for her.

This got me thinking. Mine is not the only child whose formative years have been directly and deeply impacted by this pandemic (of course, for many, the impact has been far more substantial and negative and my heart goes out to each of them and their families). Even in her case, where the impact has been relatively minor and confined (thank goodness) to an absence of middle-class experiences in comparison to her elder sister, rather than having to experience something far more traumatic, the result is tangible and significant.

Today, as I write this, currently more than two thirds of the way into my pregnancy with our third beautiful daughter, I can’t help but wonder what kind of world she will be joining in 2022. I find myself questioning which aspects of everyday life today she might never experience. What will be the escalators and elevators of her experience? The things I never stopped to consider as important aspects of a ‘normal’ childhood, that will be missing from her experience? Likely whatever these are – and they will be there – will catch me off guard, as happened this time. It is never the things you see coming that cause the greatest disruption.

As I reflect on the agonizing experience that has been my following of the happenings (and non happenings) at COP26, I find that, already, what we can see coming is frightening. Will my youngest be growing up in a world where isolation is the norm and travel is unheard of? Where making friends with another kid at the beach is considered a health hazard rather than a standard part of any childhood vacation? Which parts of the world – the country; the neighbourhood – that my eldest daughters have been privileged enough to see, will be out of bounds for their younger sister? Which animal species will no longer be around for her to interact with and appreciate? Will she be learning about Bengal tigers the way the elder two learn about dinosaurs? Will we even be living in the same country? On the same continent? Or will Africa be desolate due to our inaction on climate change? What will the ‘new normal’ look like for her? And how much will it differ not just from that of her sisters, but from what her father and I have experienced? Or our parents?

Though I wish I did, these are questions to which I do not have the answer. I’m sure all parents feel the same. We wish to be able to give our children some sense of security, safe in the knowledge of how things are – certain of what is certain. At this stage, with the climate emergency running rampant and action to mitigate its worst effects severely insufficient at a global scale, this is not something we can offer. And this is especially true for those of us in emerging markets, and particularly those in Africa, where, unless we can spark some massive scale action very soon, the true impact of what is coming is likely to be far worse than we could ever anticipate.

Will we get the financing we need in time to initiate the most important infrastructural shifts that we require? I don’t know. Will the transition to low carbon economies be socially just or more of the same extractive, exploitative model to which African economies have become ever too accustomed? I don’t know. Will the physical impacts of the changing climate pale in comparison to the resultant socio-political instability, or will we band together and work through this in collaboration? I hope so. But honestly, I have no idea.

What I do know, beyond any doubt, is that the world we are able to offer to our children, including those already here and those on their way, will depend largely on the decisions we make today. With every choice we make in the present, we create the new normal of the future. No matter which way we swing it, it’s up to us. Apart from being unfair, I’d argue that it’s also very likely unwise to leave it up to our kids to fix on our behalf: the poor little things can’t even use an escalator, for goodness sake!