Shakespeare’s Hamlet complained that ‘the time is out of joint’ – an image that captures my sense of dislocation and disorientation in this time of coronavirus. Like many others, I find myself living in multiple times.
First, and most obviously, there is emergency time which brings a heightened state of anxiety as the crisis unfolds and the demands it makes on the public change and multiply. Meanwhile for those working in health and social care, it is a time of continuing emergencies as they confront the virus on a daily basis. This is a time of continuing uncertainty, generated in the face of an invisible threat and an all too visible government.
But this emergency time exists simultaneously with the endless everyday: our Groundhog Day of news stories, government briefings and, for me at least, the daily doses of blood-stirring rage in the face of continuing incompetence, deception and duplicity. This is a shapeless time, measured out in deliveries, disciplined exercise and the socially differentiated conditions of enclosure. This everyday contains the compressed minutiae of surviving in the face of fears, lost possibilities and fantasies about the future. But, for most of us, it just repeats (although without the enlivening presence of Bill Murray).
In the midst of this, we also encounter the feeling of stolen time: the lives cut short by the virus and its effects, the sense of loss among those whom they leave behind. But this sense of stolen time is also felt profoundly by the most vulnerable, those enclosed, isolated, shielded and left to wait for who knows what. Others lose the time of employment, of learning, of growing up and of contact in its many mundane intimacies. Here, there is a powerful feeling of time forgone, never to be regained, a distorted reflection of how life might have been even before the arrival of COVID-19.
But, as they say, times change and we now face a strangely shape-shifting time horizon. For some groups, from manufacturing workers to small children, they find themselves incited to get out there, make things, learn things – and be careful. Because this is the time whose time has come, as we are urged to get back to ‘business as usual’, led by a chorus of Conservative cheerleaders anxious to get other people back to work and to pass that desperately needed Immigration Bill to keep low paid foreign workers out of our health and care systems.
Strangely, many of these same voices also insist that this is a time whose time has not come. It is simply too early, they say, to allow criticisms, to seek explanations for failures, to hold those in power to account. Indeed, hearing these voices, I sometimes suspect that this may be a time that they hope will never come, in which we will never get to ask these questions, much less receive the answers.
Such outbursts always remind me of a temporal obligation that I feel very strongly: the need to remember and recount what is otherwise at risk of becoming forgotten time. My government and its supporters seem to suffer from a severe case of historical amnesia: they have forgotten how we got here. A decade of destructive austerity policies, unravelling the public infrastructure, enthusiastically repressing public sector wages and the deepening of inequality and poverty, whose effects now stare us in the face. Let’s also not forget forty years of anti-social policies which hollowed out government capacity, marketised services, fragmented systems and left us apparently unable to have a sustained public health response to managing this crisis. Remembering these times in the face of sudden enthusiasm for the NHS, public services and their workers matters.
Finally, there is perhaps the strangest of times: nostalgia time, in which the current pandemic is remapped as war time. Here we are invited to summon up the British spirit (which has seen off so many terrible enemies), to sing along with Vera Lynn as we celebrate VE day, and to remember the triumph of Winston Churchill (the Prime Minister’s hero, of course). This celebration of British exceptionalism and its fervent patriotism not only misrepresents our current crisis but also brings with it another amnesia. In all the recent summonings of the war-time spirit, one thing never gets mentioned: “1945” was also the moment of a General Election and the creation of a reforming Labour Government.
So, there can be little wonder that the time feels out of joint: there are so many times in play which cut across our lives in such different ways. But I am left with a question: in the midst all these times, is there space for another: a time for a change?
John Clarke is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University. His work stretches across cultural studies, anthropology and policy studies.
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