Yesterday, I expanded a bit on some thoughts concerning how the COVID pandemic has shaped my professional sense of time. Today, I want to think a little bit about how COVID has shaped our collective sense of time. Again, these ideas are not fully formed and in a perfect world, I’d have more time to think about these things and maybe shape them into some kind of article.
In any event, this is not a perfect world and this blog is not a perfect medium, but I’m going to write anyway and leave it up to you whether you want to read it or not.
Part of the frustration that so many people have encountered surrounding COVID is temporal. Not only has COVID disrupted daily routines that have for a century contributed significantly to the spaces of work and private life, the experiences of travel and distance, and our understanding of social and political relationships, but it has also disturbed our sense of the present.
The main way that this is possible is in the delays inherent in our encounters with the virus. On a day-to-day level, we encounter these delays whenever we look at the myriad daily dashboards that report COVID testing results. We are aware that these results represent not the situation on the day on which various organizations report and tabulate their test results, but several days earlier when they administered the tests. There is, however, a certain dissonance between the daily numbers and the process of testing and processing the tests that means the numbers on any particular day serve as an imprecise proxy for the present situation.
Making things more temporally murky is that exposure to the virus will not immediately result in a positive test. There seems to be an incubation period between exposure and having enough viruses in your system to trigger a positive result. This makes the daily results even more complicated to understand as they represent individuals who have tested positive over a span of time, probably a few days, and who were exposed to the virus over a span of time. The “point data” that the daily test results seem to imply (recognizing, of course, that most dashboards also present data as rolling seven and fourteen day averages) represents not a moment in time, but a complex amalgam of processes, events, and situations.
Various virus protocols recognize temporal imprecision of a positive test and typically reflect a conservative approach temporally to preventing the further spread of the virus. Thus quarantines are five or ten days anticipating the variability in time surrounding a positive test. If the modern world reflects a growing interest in precision and efficiency, the temporal world of COVID is maddeningly imprecise and inefficient. If we tend to think about the present as a point where the past and the future intersect, the COVID virus has created a much more blurry sense of the present that represents both the past and the future.
(I would love to think about the blurry present of COVID in the comparison to the speed at which capital moves in contemporary financial markets and were billions of dollars in value can appear or vanish in moments leaving increasingly precarious worker dependent upon rather imprecise (at least from a temporal standpoint) proxies for understanding the viability of their employment and livelihood.)
Of course, this blurry present generates a fair degree of anxiety because most of us struggle to understanding the chaotic experience of multiple simultaneous temporalities. The roll out of the COVID vaccine seems to also create a sense of confusion as not only is manufacturing a slow process, but the distribution of the vaccine appears destined to proceed at different rates among different populations. Putting aside the remarkable achievement of developing a vaccine and beginning to distribute it at scale in the matter of months, it seems like the uncertainty surrounding access to the vaccine is causing as much concern as its efficacy or its safety.
I wonder how much of this concern relates to the sense that our already blurry present is prolonged as we wait to understand when we will have access to the vaccine. Moreover, some parts of the population who are already being vaccinated must have started to live in a time defined by a notable different sense of the present. It is no longer defined by the blurry imprecision of daily test reports, but by the relatively secure familiarity of pre-COVID routines.
It’s interesting that many of the popular depictions of pandemics emphasize the perils of a fast moving disease that would kill its victims both consistently and quickly. COVID appear to be fast moving, but its massive death toll only reflects one aspect of its impact on society. I would argue that the uncertainty surrounding its spread and the temporal imprecision of the instruments that we have at our disposal to understand its impact on our communities have had their own distinct impact on our world and lives.