Times of crisis: Temporality and COVID-19

Professor Lee Jarvis explores the importance of time within the current coronavirus crisis.

On 27 April, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the public for the first time since his hospitalisation and recovery from Coronavirus. Observers of his comments might have noticed the extent to which these were saturated with references to, and assumptions about, temporality: references to – in other words – and assumptions about, time.

Beginning with his recent absence from work, Johnson apologised for being ‘away from my desk for much longer than I would’ve liked’ conceptualising – in the process – time as a resource for the satisfaction of (here unmet) ends. Later, in his comments, a collective, shared experience of time as duration was posited, with his noting that, ‘we are passing through the peak’. Very familiar temporal metaphors were brought in to emphasise COVID-19’s significance, depicting this crisis as the, ‘Biggest single challenge this country has faced since the (second world) war’. And, radically different temporal imaginaries competed, too, to link pasts, presents and futures together: from the evolutionary positing of gradual, incremental gains ‘We are making progress with fewer hospital admissions, fewer COVID patients in ICU’; to the discontinuous framing of a task nearing accomplishment: ‘we are on the verge of achieving that first clear mission: to prevent our national health service from being overwhelmed’. While each of these constructions imply a knowability to the future, it is the present’s contingency that takes precedence where Johnson turns his attention to the task at hand, and our collective ‘reckoning with time’ (Ricoeur 1980: 175): ‘This is the moment of opportunity. This is the moment when we can press home our advantage. It is also the moment of maximum risk.’

The importance of temporal claims, experiences, metaphors and projections is in no way unique to the current crisis – remember all the references to the 9/11 attacks (familiar to us, still, as a date) as a historical dividing point or a ‘new Pearl Harbor’? Indeed, the perception, living and governing of time is a constant across socio-political existence: as vital for the timetabling of railways and workers’ lives as it is for the waging of war or the scheduling of parliamentary business. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, does present us with an important – timely! – opportunity to reflect on this significance, and the multiple, heterogeneous ways in which time structures, our lived existence. Let us, briefly, consider four recent examples.

In the first instance, Johnson’s comments illustrate the role of time in our efforts to make sense of – and to speak on – the world around us. Histories, memories, and stories of all kinds (whether factual or fictional) involve and depend upon the construction of time, relying – as they do – on the identification and linking of important events into coherent, meaningful, narratives. COVID-19 is, of course, no exception here. From the widespread depiction of the current constraints as a ‘new normal’, to the framing of the Coronavirus Bill as a set of ‘extraordinary measures that do not apply in normal circumstances’, to comparisons with and differentiations from historical pandemics such as SARS and Ebola, to discussions of multiple phases and multiple spikes. Framings such as these all serve to construct the (current) coronavirus and its responses in particular ways, in part through situating this crisis in relation to specific pasts and futures. And they do so by imposing – or attempting to impose – coherence upon sequences of events and their relations (White 1980: 27).

Second, the UK’s response to this pandemic also offers important contemporary evidence of the political control of time. From decisions around the lockdown’s length, to guidance on the duration and frequency of daily exercise, the UK’s response has involved the assertion of temporal control as much as its more immediately visible spatial restrictions. As the government’s guidelines put it:

People must stay at home as much as possible to reduce the spread of the virus. But you can also still go outside once a day for a walk, run, cycle. When doing this you must minimise the time you are out of your home and stay at least two metres away from anyone else that isn’t from your household.

This, again, is not out of step with previous experiences, as Gross (1985) notes, the political control of time is central to the modern state and the control of polities, promising, perhaps, ‘more social order, more cohesion, more homogeneity’.

Third, has been the emergence of new – and ostensibly bottom-up – examples of what we can call ‘social time’, most obvious amongst these being the national ‘clap for our carers’ event that runs every Thursday evening at 8pm (accompanied now by a website with a digital countdown). Such events – and more localised activities – play an important role in constructing or imagining communities around a shared, timetabled, experience, perhaps introducing some measure of predictability and routine to individuals who may have lost these with transformations to working and other patterns.

Which brings us to my final example: individual experiences of time under current conditions of lockdown. The most important consideration here, I think, is the heterogeneity with which this crisis is currently being experienced. From furloughed or unemployed workers who may be suffering a surfeit of unwanted time. To other individuals enjoying newfound freedoms from daily commutes and routinised obligations. To others now attempting, often struggling, to juggle carers with home-schooling and childcare who may lack the time to do any such tasks as successfully as before. To ‘essential workers’, finally, perhaps experiencing longer working hours or the loneliness of self-distancing from their families for unknowable periods of time. Time is crucial to these and other experiences – all, of course, rooted in social contexts to do with gender, class, and beyond – dramatic differences between such experiences notwithstanding.

Lee Jarvis, Professor of International Politics, University of East Anglia

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