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Is this Normal?

As we learn to adapt, life as we know it has become a thing of the past

By Reem Abouemera

A year into the pandemic, we’re looking forward to the day when we finally say, “It’s over.” 

With our lives being changed in profound ways we couldn’t possibly expect, including online learning, remote work, e-commerce, cashless payments, connecting via Facetime and Zoom, keeping a distance, avoiding handshakes and more — it’s time to pause and consider how we live now and how we will live in the future.

Have our lives changed for good, or is there a return to “normality” coming soon? 

Appreciating the Little Things

The pandemic has impacted people personally in different ways, and the ongoing uncertainty could exceed one’s ability to cope in some cases, explained Hani Henry, associate professor of psychology and associate dean of the School of Sciences and Humanities. Being such a formative period, its effect will vary depending on each person’s perceptions. 

“Some might perceive what happened as the beginning of the end and may be worried that we will experience another pandemic. They will have a pessimistic bias toward life, and things could get challenging for them,” explained Henry, adding that such people may suffer from mental disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or even depression. That’s even more so if the pandemic has a direct effect on them or their loved ones since they may re-experience flashbacks of their ordeal.

“On the other hand, others might perceive what happened as an exceptional event. For them, life will be much appreciated, and they will live as if there is no tomorrow,” Henry reflected, highlighting that these people will make up for the lost time and live life to the fullest, including traveling a lot and spending more money — appreciating the little things and reprioritizing aspects of their lives. This entails surrounding themselves with positive people and avoiding negative emotions, and they may even change or quit their stressful jobs. 

“There is also a third type, who really never took the virus seriously and lived their lives as if nothing was happening. These individuals will continue life as usual and will not react in an unusual way as the other two types,” Henry said. “However, I expect that life will change for everyone. Life pre-COVID is something, and life post-COVID will be something else. We will probably experience a major change in our lifestyle. We will be more serious about our health and well-being, focus more on priorities and perhaps there will be more interpersonal distancing to avoid new infections.”

Shop ‘Til You Drop 

Ever since the pandemic outbreak, mall-based retailers and brick-and-mortar stores have been facing a rough storm, and it seems like only online retailers accelerated their sales as countries went through lockdowns. Even customers who were once uncomfortable with the idea of online shopping were forced to use it, so will online shopping be the future? Hamed Shamma ’99, ’02, associate professor of marketing, believes it will at least continue to rise.

“No one knows when the pandemic will end, but what we know for sure is that this pandemic has changed shopping behavior forever,” he stressed. “COVID-19 has created a great opportunity for online shopping. More people will buy online as opposed to going to a store. The lockdown, safety precautions and worry have resulted in a shift in preferences toward online shopping. This applies to all kinds of shopping, including grocery, fashion, electronics and more.”

2020 saw an increase in online shopping, particularly in developing markets

While this is a worldwide trend, Shamma noted that it has particularly created major shifts toward online shopping in developing markets, where most consumers were used to brick-and-mortar stores. For instance, he noted, Amazon witnessed a 50% increase in business from its online store for most of 2020, and Souq also had a similar growth rate for the same period. 

Does this mean that the regular brick-and mortar-stores will die out? 

“No,” Shamma was quick to point out. “Until today, most purchases are done in brick-and-mortar stores. This was the case before COVID-19 and is the case now with COVD-19. This applies to any market in the world. The ratio may differ, but the weight of sales through brick-and-mortar stores is still much higher than online stores. I’m a believer that brick-and-mortar stores will never die out. We are humans, not machines. We always want to see, feel, hear, try, smell and touch what we buy.”

But things will change. “Today, brick and mortar retailers have to account for social distancing, hygiene, checking temperature, limited physical contact, less cash and more digital payments and receipts,” said Shamma. “I believe that this will continue for a while, if not for good. Many retailers are going beyond these basic rules and offering delivery and drive-through services, and restaurants are offering their uncooked food to be cooked at home as well as healthy options.”

Shop owners have to be careful nonetheless, he emphasized. “Retailers have to be smart in the experiences they offer. They have to offer a new, exciting and unique customer experience because today’s consumers are more demanding than ever before. We will not go back to pre-COVID-19. Our lives have changed, and this change will remain with us for good.”

Live vs. Virtual Concerts 

Musicians always find a way to perform, and during the pandemic, the answer was to livestream productions and concerts for audiences to tune in to from the comfort of their homes. But are virtual concerts a passing fad or here to stay? John Baboukis, professor of music, hopes in-person performances will remain the norm.

“The issue of what happens now is much more fraught. I would hope to see a full restoration of performing arts events as community gatherings, eventually,” said Baboukis. 

During the Fall 2020 semester, AUC’s music program offered many concerts, all of which did not allow a live audience, except one. They were stream cast, either live or on the following evening. Even during the one concert with a live audience, 19 chamber orchestra players were spatially separated on the stage, and despite the hall being able to accommodate 900 people, only 150 were allowed in, sitting a few seats apart, with alternate rows kept empty — and everybody had to wear masks.

This Is Not a Concert virtual performance

“Virtual performances cannot capture what we get when musicians work together in the same space at the same time. Watching a concert on a screen, even as it is happening, is just not the same experience as being physically present at the concert,” reflected Baboukis. “We will have to be patient and slowly reconstruct our musical and artistic lives as the effects of the COVID crisis recede.”

The Show Must Go on 

The theatrical landscape is undoubtedly being challenged, just like all performing arts. Will theatre survive the pandemic? John Hoey, associate professor of practice in theatre, believes that the industry has great prospects post-COVID-19.

“For years, I have known that we are at a shift of things, and Netflix is a perfect example of that shift,” said Hoey, “Before, you would need to be at the movies at 7 and be done at 8:30 – we were like cavemen who had to stay there. Now there has been a shift away from this structure of timelines.” 

There is already a trend of fewer people going to theatres to watch live plays, Hoey noted. “The most commonly mentioned reason for people no longer going to theatres is the difficulty of being at a specific place at a specific time, especially with friends having different schedules and plans.”

“Now Netflix allows you to come and go. You no longer have to go out to watch a movie,” emphasized Hoey. “People choose what accommodates their schedules, so change has been coming for a while, but we grew 10 years in this past year alone.” 

However, live performances will not demolish anytime soon, especially in Egypt, Hoey affirmed. “I think we will go back to having live music performances, plays and art galleries because Egyptians love to socialize,” he reflected. “There’s a sense of social gathering that Egyptians still share, so I like to think that a lot of live performances will be coming back, maybe not as before, but if we’re smart, we will add a digital component to them.”

This digital component opens up possibilities for art organizations to showcase their products to a wider audience, Hoey noted, based on his experience with AUC’s Imaginary Invalid and performances by rock band Massar Egbari at AUC’s Tahrir Cultural Center, where more than 90,000 fans from at least six different countries tuned in to the band’s concerts.

The Imaginary Invalid virtual play

“Once the pandemic ends, we will definitely go back to having live performances, but we’ll also start seeing more live performance streams broadcast and digitized in some way for non-live audiences,” Hoey explained. “People are hoping for the vaccine to be a miracle so we could go back to being the social animals we are and the way things were before, but I don’t think we will. Some things we did in the past year will stay with us.”

Audience interaction is a challenge — one that virtual performances can’t provide. On the bright side, Hoey humored that in virtual performances, actors don’t have to worry about people being on their phones, eating candy, chewing out loud or distracting others. 

“We need to figure out what the good things are about live performances and hold on to them — make a list of what we want to keep and bad things we want to get rid of,” Hoey advised, stating that he and the actors implemented this for The Imaginary Invalid and Tragedy: A Tragedy.

“Yes, there’s a purifying reaction we get when we see a performance live, and the digital experience limits it and tones it down a bit, but there will always be a need for live performances. The best practice is to blend both and get to make the whole world see it. That’s the exciting part!”

Tragedy: A Tragedy virtual play

Referencing Shakespeare, “The reed which does not bend, break,” Hoey emphasized that just like theatre changed when film came out and took another direction, that’s what needs to be done now. “The key is to be flexible and adaptable,” he said.

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