In order to understand this pandemic, we need to throw out the research rulebook


It’s impossible to avoid the fact that this pandemic has been an intensely personal experience. All of us have seen our lives shrink in one way or another. We’ve been restricted to our homes, our local areas or workplaces, kept apart from friends and family. For tens of thousands of people, life is less because of the people they’ve lost. For too many, the new normal has been coloured by grief.

I am one of the extremely lucky ones. My daily experience of the crisis is limited to what I read, and shaped by the tiniest details: the length of queue outside Sainsbury’s, Zoom calls, walks around the park across the road. I am excited about my appointment to give blood in a week’s time because it will necessitate taking A Bus. I know this experience would be very different if I had children or had a job that I couldn’t do from home. However grateful I am to them, I can’t imagine what it’s been like for those fighting this disease on the front line. I feel like change as a result of this crisis is inevitable. But I also know that there are aspects of my life I’m desperate to get back to.

Chances are we all have versions of these thoughts running through our minds. And as much as they’re based on reason, they’re equally based on our feelings about what we’ve seen and experienced over the past few months. They’re sadness, rage, pride, hope, fear, anxiety, panic, those small moments of joy – all rolled into one. And they’re why working out what to do next is going to be so difficult.

Policy research usually relies on being able to put people into categories and working out how the things we’re talking about affect people in those categories. In many cases, that’s what works. But it can result in a sort of alienation from the way people actually experience life. I remember going to an event on a very impressive report on poverty, where it was mentioned, almost as an aside, that none of the people they spoke to identified as poor. One of the things I love about Demos is that it’s never shied away from these kinds of complexities, but it’s clear that in this case we need to go further: seek to understand individual experiences before doing anything else. 

For this reason, Renew Normal is the most ambitious project Demos has ever undertaken. The survey we’ve launched this week asks you to tick a few boxes, yes, but also asks you to share your experiences, in your own words, saying what’s been important to you. We’ve already had nearly 10,000 responses, each personal stories of a pandemic that’s made all of our lives unrecognisable. Each one matters, and so does yours. With them, and only with them, can we hope to understand the effect this has had on us all, and how we can begin to rebuild.