Timelessness in a Pandemic

As furloughed workers, the self-employed and those stuck at home start to lose track of time, it's important not to lose track of what has happened – and who is responsible.

British Summer Time started just as it was supposed to, on 29 March – although not much else did. It may be helpful to recap that back then we were a week into the UK’s official coronavirus lockdown. It seemed especially absurd to change the clocks this year, perhaps because it was accompanied by the new realisation that it had always been absurd. It wasn’t until so many of us stopped measuring out our time in commutes and eight-hour workdays that we seemed to collectively realise that time was fake. And if time was fake, what else was fake? 

The recent weeks have seen something very strange happen to our perceptions of time. Recalling news events of the recent past is like finding a knot in a piece of string, tied to remind us of something or other. It was three weeks before the clocks changed, on 9 March, that a Facebook post from an Italian doctor had begun doing the rounds. Perhaps you remember sharing it, grimly pushing “like”, or emailing it to an equally worried friend. It was, at the time, widely discussed as though it was a sort of spectral warning from the future. Italy was in the depths of the crisis, or so it seemed (it would get worse still), whereas the UK was merely on the brink of realising what was to come. The doctor in question, Dr. Daniele Macchini, spoke of how bad things were in Italian hospitals, and how this crisis was on its way to other countries. He said “there are no more shifts, schedules. Social life is suspended for us.” Around this time, people in the UK started to say that Italy, was “us, in three weeks”; a conflation of the spatial and the temporal which seemed novel, and, with hindsight, was evidence of the type of contorted analogy that people employ only when catastrophising. 

The day after Macchini’s post, 10 March, was the day when one of the top news stories in the UK was about stockpiling body bags. Perhaps you remember that, too. And it was very shortly after this that private companies started building NHS Nightingale hospitals in conference centres. 

As Macchini’s words reverberated round all the social media platforms, through the three-app anxiety scroll with which we’re becoming increasingly familiar, we might have assumed that this portentous foreshadowing, these ghosts of Christmas future, would come to mean something. That when those three weeks rolled around, as the rest of the world caught up with the point at which Italy had beamed them a warning back in time, something meaningful would change. But those three weeks passed, and according to the numbers of the dead, which we had by then become accustomed to diligently checking once a day, we reached that point. Then we overtook it. Soon, we’d come to realise that the government’s numbers represented a severe under-reporting. 

The same weekend that the clocks changed, the West Midlands police invoked the region’s higher-than-expected death rate as a justification for exceeding their lockdown powers. Nobody dying in the West Midlands the weekend of 29 March could possibly have contracted the virus after the lockdown, which had been announced just a week earlier; those people had caught it much earlier in March, when herd immunity had still been the government’s strategy, when the Cheltenham race meeting went ahead, when the Stereophonics were playing stadium gigs. Back then, Boris Johnson had been bragging about how he was still shaking hands, and now, a few weeks later, he had just announced his own “mild symptoms”. By now it was already becoming tricky to keep track of time passing. How many days had it even been? It was hard to process what this all meant, whether the UK was now “Italy”, because we were collectively coming to believe that time had stopped to seem real. This was just the beginning of six, seven, eight, weeks of forgetting. 

Chronophobia, a distinct fear of time, is particularly common in prisoners. Sufferers may fear that the present time will never end. Lisa Baraitser, Professor in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, calls it “the affective experience of the too-much-ness of time, time that will not pass, will not unfold onto a future of freedom, release or death”. In a crisis, losing track of time has clearly held some allure for many of us; especially as our experience of units of time has hitherto been intrinsically linked to labour and capital. Although coronavirus has been a truly global event, it has been far from universal or levelling, and has felt vastly different depending on geography, wealth, age, race, class, gender, disability, or caring responsibilities. What’s more, under lockdown, people have been denied moments of communality and shared experience. Disassociating, willingly drowning, stopping counting, forgetting; any of this would be, under the circumstances, entirely understandable. 

But when we stop counting, we can lose track of injustices. We can allow them to drift past unnoticed. If we’re all confused, not conferring, barely measuring out our days, we become extremely vulnerable to manipulation. Our confusion will be weaponised, and used against us. And it’s not benign, bumbling incompetence when Boris Johnson tells us that our country’s disastrous pandemic response has been a success. He wasn’t mistaken; he was lying. Neither was it simply a mistake when the police shouted at working-class park users with megaphones, or harassed supermarket users for buying non-essential foods. The state and government response has been characterised by negligence, abuses of power and bad-faith revisionism. When we lose track of these, because time has become foggy and confusing, when we willingly forget how long life has been this way, or what happened when, it serves the interests of someone else who is not us. 

In a rapidly developing situation like the pandemic, the calendar becomes something to cling to, a way to hold people to account. Chalk marks of days on a wall are marking off something that may or may not be real, but what is happening to us all is extremely real. We will need to resist the sense that days are slippery, or an illusion, because time still matters and it may yet be our best line of defence. Keeping track of time is the only way we can understand what we are facing, remember who was there, and who made a disaster worse. As the lockdown frays at the edges, the government’s communications continue to encourage confusion and disorientation. It’s not time that’s slipping away, but the truth. Keeping track of the destruction left behind will be our job; counting backwards from the day that someone dies, and working out why it happened. We will need to account for all of this in the future. Remembering, really making ourselves remember even when we want so badly to forget, is vital, essential, labour.