Life has changed since Covid-19 struck. For some, life is at a standstill while front line workers are facing the new normal. People have been asked to maintain social distancing and the majority have been asked not to leave their homes except for essential needs, such as groceries, exercise, or medical care. Less obviously, the pandemic has also affected our perception of time.
How humans relate to time
Durham University’s Assistant Professor of Anthropology Felix Ringel shared that as an anthropologist of time, he investigates how human beings relate to time, especially during crises. The Covid-19 pandemic, just like other crises before it, has deprived us of our temporal agency – the ability to manipulate, manage, and structure our experience of time. For instance, many people may have already lost track of time today, wondering which day of the week it currently is. It somehow feels like time has stopped.
Ringel also mentioned an important feature of our perception of time during a crisis called enforced presentism. Citing the words of anthropologist Jane Guyer, enforced presentism is the feeling of being stuck in the present and being unable to plan for the next step. Currently, many don’t know when they can see their loved ones again, when they can go back to work or whether they still have a job to go back to, or when they can go on a vacation again. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it is difficult to imagine a future that is different than how the present looks.
The professor of anthropology added that most of us nowadays are, to some extent, tricking time. We either slow down or speed up, restructure and bend time in various ways. Ringel explained this in a recent study titled "Time-Tricking: Reconsidering Temporal Agency in Troubled Times." He co-authored that study with Roxana Moroşanu. In the said study, they shared that “corona time” comprises different times, including “home office time,” “quarantine time,” or “time of lockdown.” Each differs and is deeply personal in every household. Nevertheless, they speak of an experience that is shared in different parts of the world nowadays.
Temporal strategies and feeling of stuckness
In the last few months, some may have used many temporal strategies, such as weekly family Zoom meetings, daily exercises, weekend cake baking, homeschooling, and an evening glass of wine. All these demand a new schedule and maybe endless persuasion.
The feeling of stuckness or being unable to progress or move forward is not new to many. Some people just cannot keep up with the accelerating flows of ideas, commodities, and money globally, and they may feel left behind, having previously felt the feeling of being stuck even before the pandemic hit their country.
In his work on the postindustrial cities, Ringel studied human relationships in the future during an economic crisis. Just like how philosopher Karl Marx told us more than 150 years ago, crises are a part of capitalism, which is an economic system in which the production of goods and services is based on supply and demand in the general market rather than through central planning (command economy). Yet, after World War II, welfare states mostly kept the economic crisis at bay. A welfare state is a form of government in which the state protects the health and well-being of its citizens, especially those in social and financial need.
Then, in the 1980s, neoliberal reforms led to the dismantling of the welfare state. Governments stopped understanding five-year plans. New technological developments, including the internet, also led to an acceleration of time.
Beating stuckness: keep calm and carry on
This means that neoliberalism, about our temporal agency, has already put humanity into crisis mode for several decades. In the changing markets and without job security, many would get stuck in the present and struggle to plan. The only way they battle the feeling of being stuck is to “muddle through” or the more heroical phrase of just “keep calm and carry on.”
History would show us that after years of high employment rates and industrial boom, many inhabitants from postindustrial cities would feel their towns have no future. The well-educated and the young will move away, searching for jobs, while those who stay behind experience the gradual decline in their hometown.
Instead of responding to events, the urban government stepped in to reclaim future planning and overcome enforced presentism and lack of foresight. Despite experiencing a slow decline in their city, they ask, for instance, "how do we want the city to look in five years?"
In the time of Covid-19
Ringel opined that the same strategy of overcoming enforced presentism can also be applied in the Covid-19 pandemic. Now should be the time to think ahead about how life should look post-pandemic. There is value in tricking time further than just our homes. He thinks that although there is no proper treatment or vaccine for Covid-19 yet, people should try to remove the feeling of being trapped in the present and engage in the “politics of time” that will help determine our future.
In a survey conducted by database company Statista among Romanian respondents, the majority or 76% of them said they have had the desire to see somebody they love since the Covid-19 pandemic hit their country while 41% said they felt that if the pandemic continues longer, they could run out of savings. The same percentage (41%) said they felt anger towards one of the decisions made by the Romanian authorities and 40% said they felt loneliness during the pandemic. Some answered they fear dying because of Covid-19 (38%), fear that the coronavirus will be followed by a food crisis (38%), have the desire of going to a restaurant (33%), have feelings of anxiety that they normally did not have (32%), and have the feeling of being abandoned by everybody (17%).
Some of the causes of feeling stuck include self-doubt, fear of making mistakes, feeling hopeless or powerless, and procrastination, according to psychologist Paula Durlofsky, Ph.D. A question put to 1,000 adults in the UK in January found that only 15.6% said they never procrastinate while 20.5% said they procrastinate every day., according to Micro Biz Mag.
Sure, humanity will weather this health crisis. It will be comforting if we can trick time ahead and plan for the future even if many have that inner feeling of stagnation.