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A “New Normal” Suggestion That Should Actually Be Normal

Ottawa, Loblaws supermarket, June 2020
Ottawa, Loblaws supermarket, June 2020

The “new normal” plans and suggestions currently being implemented around the world come out of necessity but don’t feel like life upgrades. I’m scratching my head over migration to online learning, restaurants with shielded booths, stores with Plexiglas barriers, one-way aisles and futuristic-looking gyms.

We’re trying very hard to change the way we interact because someone, somewhere could be sick.

But shouldn’t we start with changing the way we deal with viruses when, inevitably, someone does get sick?

Yes, viruses, plural. Not “just” COVID-19.

Quick question—how many times were you sick last year? And how many sick days did you take? How many times did you make a conscious effort to stop the spread? How many times were you not able to because, well, life?

Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to put you on the spot. I’ll go first.

A year into my first “real” job as a French teacher, I got sick. Fever, headache, weakness, the whole package. But since it was an hourly wage job and I was living paycheck to paycheck, I still showed up at work. A day off meant losing $120, after all. Worse, I couldn’t risk my reputation as a “reliable teacher”—schedules were made weekly and “good employees” got more work hours.

Eventually, after dragging myself from classroom to classroom for four days, one of the supervisors noticed I really looked sick and told me to go home. “You get three paid sick days a year,” he said. “Take one. Hell, take all three of them.”

I had no idea we had sick days. I was a naïve twenty-something who was trying her best.

By the way, workers in Ontario have no paid sick leave rights. Most employees have the right to take up to three days of unpaid job-protected sick leave each calendar year.

In 2009, I moved onto a new opportunity and I took a position as a translator. This time, as a salaried employee, I went through a proper onboarding process with HR and I was introduced to the concept of benefits, including paid vacation days and sick days. There was a tiny problem, though—using them was frowned upon. The informal vacation policy was “take a day off here and there, forget about even considering being away for a week.” You weren’t supposed to get sick either because we were constantly swamped and we knew we would leave the team in the lurch.

I switched jobs when I got tired of being always on call and sleeping with my BlackBerry under the pillow. My new workplace was less stressful and it also offered good benefits, albeit with a slight twist—it had recently adopted the “take time off at your discretion” paid time off (PTO) model, where sick days, vacation days and personal days are combined. This is a trap, people. Got the flu? Too bad, you’ve just used the time you had set aside for vacation. As a result, everybody was showing up sick at work to “save” PTO days for a vacation.

Outside the workplace, we could probably all use a refresher on the concept of contagion as well. Let’s not take anything for granted. After all, we live in a world where citizens have to explicitly tell officials they’d rather not get killed or harmed by the police. A world where people question science, like climate change, childhood immunization and the fact the Earth is round.

Okay, this world is depressing. How about a quick anecdote? One day, toddler Mark spent an hour playing with another kid at the park. They even shared a snack the kid’s mom nicely offered. “I’m glad to see he is eating,” she noted. “We’ve all been sick with a stomach bug all night!” Guess who got the viral gastroenteritis next?

Or that time, last winter, before COVID hit. The cashier looked exhausted. “Busy shift?” I asked as he was ringing me through. “Oh no,” he replied. “It’s just that I’ve been sick for two days, probably the flu.” And here I was, wondering if it was socially acceptable to take a couple of steps back and wipe my groceries before it was even trendy to do so…

So yeah, a contagion refresher for everyone. Discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities? Not okay and completely pointless—intellectual or physical disabilities and impairment are not contagious. Viruses, on the other hand, spread like wildfire and I’m okay with avoiding my friends, relatives and co-workers for a few days when they’re sick—and I’ll stay away from them when I am too.

We need a cultural shift now and it’s the perfect time since we’re all completing virus 101—by now, we all understand how epidemics start, how easy it is to self-isolate for a few days and the consequences we face when things get out of hand.

Let’s build on this.

Employees showing up sick at work are not dedicated, they are a liability—next time someone calls in sick, breathe a sigh with relief, you’ve just avoided a possible outbreak. By the way, absolutely no ones come to work sick for fun—workers need to know they can stay home without losing money, hours or their job. Since we’re at it, can we stop with doctor notes? Sitting in a packed germy waiting room for hours helps exactly no ones and it’s a waste of time for health professionals as well.

It’s time to learn from mistakes, isn’t it?

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