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Elizabeth Ohene writes... The new normal is the normal

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
The writer, Elizabeth Ohene
The writer, Elizabeth Ohene

Suddenly, I find I am hesitating at doing what should be normal, regular and instinctive. Last Saturday, I went to visit Sena and Akua, my favourite nephew and niece who had been away in boarding school and I hadn’t seen for quite a while.

Of course, there were screams and broad smiles and as they reached me with arms wide open and the hug was in progress, I realised I almost froze. I then took a deep breath and gave them the tightest hug ever.

After two years of constantly having to remind myself that I might be endangering my loved ones if I hugged them, it is not surprising that hugging does not seem to be the instinctive thing to do any more.

Here I am, having difficulty stepping out of my house without a mask. It isn’t just that it feels wrong, I feel naked without a mask.

Going outside my home or entering a roomful of people without a mask now feels like throwing a piece of paper on the ground for example, one of those things I never do because my mother disapproved so strongly.

Of all the things that we have had to do and put up with in the past two years as part of the COVID-19 protocol, the wearing of masks seemed to be the most intrusive, the most uncomfortable and the most unnatural.

It was the one thing that I had been so looking forward to getting rid of once this miserable virus went away.

When President Akufo-Addo made his last “Fellow Ghanaians” speech in which he announced the lifting of many of the COVID-19 restrictions, it was the bit about it no longer being mandatory to wear masks that excited me the most. The hour of liberation had struck.

Now, suddenly, here I am and I can see so many good reasons for wearing a mask! We are all so relieved our rate of COVID-19 infections have gone down so dramatically, but I am looking at the COVID-19 figures in Europe and in China and I can’t help but think that this virus is not yet done with us.

Shanghai, the famous Chinese city, is in the midst of a severe lockdown. I am telling myself what if our infection rate starts creeping up again and it becomes mandatory again to wear masks. So, I am thinking better not delude myself and get out of the habit of wearing the masks.

Attractive

There are other reasons the new normal is looking normal and even attractive. The past two years, I didn’t have my once or twice a year common cold or flu, which used to put me to bed for two to three days and made me feel so sick. The doctors say wearing masks protects me from the flu or common cold also.

There are other reasons. Just think of how many times you have met someone who looks familiar but you can’t work out who he/she is and when you can, you are unable to remember the name or how you know them.

These past two years, you can always blame non-recognition of someone you meet on the face mask.

The mask buys you time as you go through the ritual of the greetings and you are able to work out the identity of the person you are speaking to and there are no hurt feelings.

According to Shakespeare, “there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”, but there are many times when the face betrays what we are thinking and feeling in spite of our best efforts to hide our thoughts and our feelings.

With a mask firmly in place, however, you discover that the mind’s construction is safely hidden and not visible.

Who would have thought that this irritant of a clothing item would turn out to be such a useful tool in dealing with human relationships?

Other reasons

There are other reasons. For the past two years, most women have got away with not wearing any makeup.

There is hardly any point in putting layers of lotion and powder on your face and then covering it up with a mask. Some very determined souls make sure they put makeup on their foreheads, the bit of the face that shows after the mask coverup.

Cosmetics generally have not been high on people’s priority lists during the pandemic. The first year, many of us found we could survive without going to the salon; the adventurous ones made drastic changes to their hairstyles to cut out the need for regular salon visits altogether.

Chances are you would discover that you are quite satisfied and even happy with the decisions you made out of the difficulties imposed by the pandemic.

So, you won’t go back to the routine of the pre-COVID-19 days. Lipstick has had a hard time these past two years and sales have declined dramatically.

I suspect there will be a few people who would go overboard and we shall be seeing some wild lipstick colours in the next few weeks as we celebrate the return of the ability to display sculpted and painted faces.

But there will be many who would think that once they have found something else to do with the money that used to go on cosmetics, it will not go back to the pre-COVID-19 days.

Funerals

As a people, I suspect the most difficult thing imposed on us by this pandemic has been the restrictions on funerals. It is the one area where the rules have been most regularly flouted.

We simply could not accept the idea of not having a big crowd at a funeral. I wonder if the practice of distribution of food parcels at the end of the burial service will continue or if we shall revert to buffet lunches.

I wonder about social distancing. Are we going to be glad to see social distancing disappear? I must confess that I have liked social distancing and I am not looking forward to going back to crowded rooms and tightly packed benches and pews.

No matter how much you like the togetherness of sitting close to people in church and other gatherings, it has to be admitted that there is something quite attractive about spacing out chairs and sitting on every other chair in an auditorium.

Once on the subject of social distancing, the discussion must lead inexorably to virtual meetings and working from home. I would vote for classroom teaching above long-distance learning any day, but I am not sure that in-person meetings are that superior to the virtual meetings we have all become accustomed to.

I started with hugging and I must end with handshaking. I accept that it is part of our custom to shake hands as part of the welcoming and greeting ritual.

The elders look out for where you start handshakes when you enter a room to be able to tell if you are well versed in Ghanaian custom.

For the past two years, we have made do with fist bumps and hand waves. I am going to try and keep this particular COVID-19 protocol going and see if I get any support.

Here is hoping the restrictions remain lifted and we have a choice in which of the protocol we observe. As for me and my household, having learnt them and become used to them, we shall be keeping most of the rules of the protocol.