On time: reflections on temporality and COVID-19

‘Something odd is happening to time’ wrote novelist Kate Grenville in her pandemic journal. ‘It’s passing so slowly … Yet the days also seem so full. Full of nothing.’

Grenville is not the first, nor will she be the last, to remark upon the impact of COVID-19 on our perception of time. Although this virus-induced crisis is far from over, journals, reminiscences, memoirs, and reports about our experiences of this pandemic repeatedly mention time. There is a sense that we are dislocated from time, as its previously stable boundaries fray disconcertingly at the edges. Days blur into weeks. Minutes feel simultaneously like seconds and hours. In a moment we can age years.

A stable sense of time is one of the most pervasive yet least interrogated casualties of the pandemic. It is certainly less pressing than a global health crisis, but our understanding of time is also bound to our understanding of this emergency—particularly at this moment, as I write during a tight lockdown due to the Delta variant in New South Wales.

The pandemic has brought our mortality into stark relief. Day after day, we are told to think of death in order to live. We are bombarded with images of hospital corridors overflowing with patients and beds, faces marked by sweat and masks and grief, coffins tightly wrapped in plastic and freshly dug graves. These images serve as a warning. Get vaccinated. Wash hands and prevent infection. Wear masks and prevent infection. Stay home and prevent infection. Follow health guidelines and live. Although this virus has highlighted social and economic inequalities, before there were vaccines, no one was immune. COVID-19 could strike down presidents and celebrities as well as the destitute and homeless. Irish poet Francis Duggan was right in calling death ‘the great equaliser’. Anyone can die. With death a constant reminder, it is natural that we think about time. How much of it do we have left? What can we do to stave off death? What can we do to get more time?

The pandemic affects almost every aspect of society, from social structures and government policy to the rhythms of our daily lives. Work looks different. The bustle of peak hour is replaced with pockets of people, workplace bubbles and masks. Working from home is not unusual. Unemployment is not unusual. Zoom is omnipresent and tactile sociability, impeded. Thousands of us are offered insight into our own privilege as these things are new to us. Those of us who live with disability or chronic illness have been living through and between these boundaries for years. Many people with anxiety disorders are well acquainted with their worlds becoming smaller because of their mental health. The difference is that now, there is no escaping this COVID-related change.

COVID has become the referent against which all experience is judged. If someone’s life appears relatively unscathed, this is read as an indication of their social or economic capital rather than a continuation of a norm. And conversely, if someone is not able to adapt to the COVID-related risk, it is a sign of their marginalisation, disadvantage, or repression. There is no ‘outside’ of the pandemic. The impact it has had on our lives is so large that many of us are treating it as a rupture in the fabric of time. ‘BC’, the most widely used historical marker, usually indicating a time before Christ, has been repurposed to refer to time Before Corona.

Considering the sudden splintering of life as we knew it, this new BC appears apt, but it does not show us the whole picture. For one thing, it encourages a pre-pandemic nostalgia—a longing for a time when things seemed simpler and easy. This overlooks the crises already gripping the world before the virus made its presence known. We had climate crisis. We had racial crises. We had gross inequality, both nationally and internationally. The difference with these pre-COVID crises is that privileged people and countries were able to turn a blind eye to them. Even as they recognised them as issues, they could operate as though immediate action was unnecessary.

Australia’s response to the climate crisis is an excellent case in point. During the worst bushfires in recorded history in the summer of 2019/2020, there was still division about whether these events should be connected to climate change. To mention the (scientifically proven) link between the two on national television was deemed by the government to be a political statement rather than scientific fact. And now, the federal government has unveiled a package to make gas the nation’s ‘transition’ method to a clean energy future. Government policy is fashioned as if the climate crisis is lightyears away rather than currently with us. Australia continues to track far lower than the Paris Agreement target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Presumably, this is because the government feels that they can sell the Australian people the fiction that we ‘have more time’.

The Coronavirus is different. Not because the stakes of the crisis are higher, but because of our perception of time. If climate change is sold to us as a slow boil, then COVID-19 was a bolt of lightning. It spread rapidly throughout the world. From a cluster of cases in China at the end of 2019, the World Health Organisation announced COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020. Australian borders closed and the nation was placed in lockdown. Businesses struggled through state-enforced closures and restrictions. Thousands of Australians lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently, and found themselves in need of government support. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg went from anticipating a surplus to announcing a national recession. These changes—to our current way of living as well as our hopes for the future—appeared as profound as they were unexpected. Except, of course, that they weren’t.

Scientists had been predicting a pandemic of this nature for years. In 1990, journalist Robin Marantz Henig reported that scientists had

[identified] conditions that could lead to the introduction of new, potentially devastating pathogens—climate change, massive urbanization, the proximity of humans to farm or forest animals that serve as viral reservoirs—with the worldwide spread of those microbes accelerated by war, the global economy, and international air travel.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the product of our context. The pandemic was created by our own ecological footprint and carried across the world on the waves of globalisation. Moreover, the effects of the virus are not unprecedented, or random. COVID-19 takes the path of least resistance. It targets the most vulnerable members of our society, whether they be physically vulnerable due to age or ill health, or socioeconomically vulnerable. It is no coincidence that this pandemic is happening at the same time as a global civil rights movement that is insisting that Black Lives Matter. People of colour are disproportionally affected by the pandemic.

Although it is tempting to say that there is a split in time, BC: before corona, and after, this moment is not outside of time. Our experience of the pandemic is irrevocably intertwined with our context; it is a product of history.

While this alerts us to the danger of framing the pandemic as rupture in time, it doesn’t explain why time feels so different. How can a day feel like months and be remembered as years? Psychology can offer us some answers here. Marc Wittman, research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany, believes that novel experience is key to our perception of time. For many of us, there is little variation in our day to day lives during lockdown. Without normal, temporal anchor points; like physical appointments, meeting friends, birthday parties etc, there is not much to distinguish one day from the next. This means that in the moment, time is experienced slowly. But conversely, because there is so little to differentiate time, we might remember that period as passing in the blink of an eye. For those of us who have the opposite lockdown experience, and whose days are filled with the novelty of adapting to new conditions, time likely feels as though it is racing. As we settle into new routines, however, our perception of time slows down again.

Of course, many of us—aware of the monotony that might accompany a lengthy lockdown—begin these periods with grand aspirations. Twitter is often abuzz with people declaring their intentions to come out of lockdown better, smarter, fitter, more accomplished people. Enrolment in Coursera, a Massive Open Online Class platform (also known as a MOOC) increased 640% between mid-March to mid-April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. An Australia Council of the Arts Survey reported that 43 per cent of Australians had ‘creatively participated in the Arts’ during the national lockdown, while more than a third reported reading more than they would have before lockdown. In April 2020, the Weekend Australian republished an article from the Times heralding boredom during lockdown as a ‘mother of invention’. Articles circulated reminding us that William Shakespeare wrote during the bubonic plague; the intimation being that we might find the ‘next Shakespeare’, or at least our ‘inner Shakespeare’, in ‘these uncertain times.’

It is difficult to say how many Australians stuck to their lockdown self-improvement plans, but the desire to turn ‘spare time’ into ‘something productive’ is not a benign one. As New Yorker columnist Jia Tolentino has written, this push for ‘self-optimistation’ is a product of late capitalism. The societal push to constantly be doing, improving, streamlining, not just our work but ourselves, has given rise to whole industries (Tolentino cites athleisure as one example), at the same time as making a more productive workforce. While we might think that making ourselves ‘as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible’ is key to our development, personal growth is in no way guaranteed. ‘Self-optimisation’ does not require introspection. In many cases, it results in guilt or shame if we are thinking or simply being when we might otherwise be doing.

Statistics don’t tell us how many people begin projects of self-improvement during lockdown that are never fulfilled. Anecdotal evidence from my little corner of the internet and my friendship circle suggests that it is rife, as is a sense of failure, for not having ‘made the most of that time’. It is hard to keep in focus the fact that we were not on self-development sabbaticals. We were (and continue to be) living through a global pandemic.

In Western culture, our understanding of time is the product of capitalism. As social historian EP Thompson compellingly argued, the omnipresence of clock time, divided into seconds, minutes and hours, is the product of the eighteenth century and the Industrial Revolution. Agrarian communities thought of time differently. Their objects of reference were seasonal: they centred around harvests, daylight and starlight, and the completion of certain tasks. The factory necessitated a more regimented version of time. People’s labour became the commodity, to be regulated and recorded, rather than simply a means to an end. We are so used to this version of time that we forget there are alternatives.

Aboriginal Dreaming, for example, does not abide by rigid, Western ideas of past, present and future. Aboriginal creations stories about the land, culture and spirituality fold time. They are both timeless and adaptive: they trace the origins of Aboriginal culture at the same time as incorporating new people and ideas to make sense of Indigenous Australian’s current place in the world. Buddhist teaching is different again, as it focuses on the impermanence of existence. Life and death are not demarcated stages that define time. Life, death and rebirth are both entangled and cyclical. They flow continuously and are propelled by webs of connection and causation. Theoretical physics offers yet another understanding of time. The theory of general relativity calls into question the idea that time is unidirectional, solid and absolute. According to this school of thought, time is relative and malleable. It is dependent on gravitational fields, the curvature of space-time, and a being’s relation to it.

What each of these alternate understandings of time have in common, is that they do not rely on teleology. Just as there is no sense that time must, necessarily, move forward, there is no sense that the more time that passes, the more society progresses. Teleological time has a long and troubled history in Western tradition. The product of Enlightenment thought, this sense that the passing of time inevitably brings progress has been used to justify European superiority and colonisation (as Europeans placed themselves on a fast-tracked, civilisational timescale, while positioning Indigenous peoples on the bottom rung of the civilisational ladder). But it was also used as an argument for progressive politics and social change. Ideas of teleological time were used to justify the abolition of slavery. They were also used by Karl Marx when he theorised stages a society must advance through before reaching a Communist utopia.

As an historian, I can say with certainty that there is nothing inevitable about time and human progress. What we consider to be ‘progress’ is relative; it changes from person to person as it also changes through time. We cannot simply assume that since time has passed and we have lived through something momentous, we will be better people or a stronger society because of it. Psychological research supports this view. Humans are incredibly adaptive. This means that we can carve out a space for ourselves and establish a ‘new normal’ even in the most desperate and dire of times. But this desire to ‘return to normal’ can lead us to deny or obfuscate the changes that have taken place. Instead of simply adapting to the world we have, we have the power to change it. Instead of trying to return to ‘business as usual’, we can interrogate what kind of society we want to live in; what kind of world we want to leave to future generations. We have the space to reflect and start a course to make that world possible.

To some readers, these lines may appear gratuitous or esoteric. Time to reflect is itself a privilege. For some of us, time is more immediate. It is marked by financial pressures; time before Centrelink payments; deadlines for job applications and their results. Time’s markers are also personal and intimate. How long until you reach the life raft of a therapy session? How many days have elapsed since you were able to touch another person? How long does a loved one have left to live?

Thinking about time is important. Our understanding of time can galvanise us, propelling us into action, or it can impede progress and positive change. Time can make us feel disorientated, fragmented, and untethered, but it can also provide new anchor points and insight into ourselves and our place in the world. Moments of crisis throw society into stark relief. If you don’t like what you see, now is the time to change it.


Image: Flickr

Meg Foster

Dr Meg Foster is an award-winning historian of bushranging, settler colonial and public history, and the Mary Bateson Research Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. Her first book, Boundary Crossers: the hidden history of Australia's other bushrangers charts the lives of Aboriginal, African-American, Chinese and female bushrangers, and will be published with NewSouth in 2022. As well as writing for academic audiences, Meg is a public historian and has a passion for making connections between history and the contemporary world.

More by Meg Foster ›

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