The world has entered a time of global epidemic. Albert Camus once wrote that ‘there have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet plagues and wars always take people by surprise.’ We have been entirely unprepared for all that has happened to us in recent weeks and for everything that still awaits us. It is not only about the efficiency of the health care system itself, the number of doctors, tests or face masks, but primarily about the unexpectedness of social experiencing of the global epidemic, which is reported to us instantly all day and night long. On a daily basis, this epidemic is different for the majority of us from the bleak conditions on the medical frontline of overburdened hospitals.
Epidemics have their source in infectious diseases, but they also have enormous power to change our everyday lives, leaving most often a long-lasting imprint on social memory. They are also able to shake the great powers, just as when the Athenian plague left Athens weakened by Sparta in the fifth century BC. In Camus’s terms, we have been as unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic as plagues in the past, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we are witnessing the arrival of yet undefined ‘new times’. The world before the outbreak of the pandemic is now clearly a “postcard from the past.”
‘New times’ have hit us overnight, regardless of many mediatized reports from lockdown China. I want to discuss one aspect here, which was the first tangible experience of this epidemic for many: a radical change in how we experience time and the political consequences of this.
Awaiting an End
The situation is perceived as extraordinary and temporary, which manifests itself in many societies being frozen in time. Everyone, therefore, comes with a natural question about the end of the current state, while waiting still. The difficulty, however, is that we do not know what this end is supposed to be: the disappearance of the virus (unlikely in foreseeable future), the end of daily life restrictions (without a template for governments when to do this to avoid the resurgence of the virus) or the overcoming of the great economic crisis that will inevitably await us (the scale of which we do not even know for now)?
Infectious disease outbreaks do not usually end on their own. We need a cure or vaccine. Both must also be massively available. All this is now a very distant future and we are increasingly more confronted with no end in sight. It is as much a medical question as a political one regarding when governments should end restrictions. There is no available template of ending constraints to which officials could relate to, while the public is as much driven by concern about the virus as by growing fatigue of social isolation and the fear of the economic future.
Beginning of Something New
While we are all waiting for the end of the epidemic, this is almost immediately accompanied by the feeling that this epidemic is the beginning of something new. Global flights and holidays of the past seem like luxury whims, while walking to the local grocery becomes a social privilege. It now seems that new times, which we have entered with the epidemic outbreak, will be a permanent state of emergency. This will periodically be limited by governments as the number of victims decreases, and will be strengthened seasonally when more people are infected, of course until there is cure or vaccine. How long will it take? Longer than we all may expect. Politically, this opens an avenue of all potential excesses of power, which undoubtably will be legitimized by a sense of urgency and extraordinary times.
Race against time
Outbreaks are also characterized by a race against time. This happens in two areas: to get the cure as soon as possible and to protect as many people as possible from the virus. The first is more important, as it can bring about the real end. But, this is only partly in the hands of governments, which fund some basic medical research from public budgets, but which leave the final stage of clinical tests for big pharma, where economic interests do not always overlap with the general public interest. Hence, to speed up the whole process of finding a cure, governments need to send even more public funds to big pharma.
The second point highlights one of the biggest challenges for various contemporary governments. The public health systems seems always to lag behind and is often criticized for its inefficiency. But they are mostly drained by high costs of medical drugs and equipment dictated by pharmaceutics companies, while in many countries populations are in enhanced need for health care as they are aging. As a result, public health systems are not ready for increased number of COVID-19 patients. Hence, all efforts are now put to prolong time when they have a capacity to cope with large number of infected people. Paradoxically, managing the epidemic is aimed at extending it over time so that the healthcare system can survive, with unclear predictions about whether this will decrease the total number of infected people when looking at the whole timeline of the epidemic.
At the same time, this race is also accompanied by immobilization of most of people’s social and economic activity while waiting for the end of the epidemic. This is done to hasten the end. All this creates a prolonged state of discomfort, even more painful in times of turbo-consumption. Thus, the fight against the epidemic has both a character of a sprint and a marathon. Politically, this is very challenging. Efforts must be placed in freezing the activity of the majority of people and isolating individuals.
Temporality During the Epidemic. Precautions Matter
One of the reasons for being surprised by the outbreak of the epidemic may be the sense of temporality in which we had been living beforehand. In fact, we are not used to the fact that something can last longer than ‘fifteen minutes’, like Warhol’s comments on fame. Most people experience the world in a fragmentary way, lacking a sense of continuity, consuming news swiftly and ‘amusing ourselves to death’ – to recall the well-known thesis of Neil Postman. We tend to forget ubiquitous fast and fragmentary messages within hours or days. Being concerned with petty issues streamed online, most of us ignored reports from China, only reacting with panic when local governments started imposing the first restrictions. This represents a lack of a precautionary culture at the individual level in today’s societies of abundance when we all assume that the stream of goods and services are natural and infinite.
In the bigger picture, governments and leaders generally also lack long-term visions and policies – climate change being the most stark example of that. The populist wave was not helpful either, predominately ignoring expertise, procedures and institutions, medical ones included. Easy and instant solutions of populists (‘we will build walls now and solve all problems’) are now at odds with pre-emptive long-term policies, which could have been protective both medically and economically in the times of epidemic and the upcoming collapse of the global economy.
Waiting for the end of this particular epidemics in the context of this overwhelming sense of temporality puts, therefore, an extra burden for contemporary consumerist societies of abundance, which do not like to lack of all sorts of comfort and which cherish their freedom of banal daily choices. Therefore, the reaction to this global pandemic, which deprives people of their liberty of moving around, is much more challenging than when plagues were one of the many misfortunes nature was bringing to people over which humans had little control. Our contemporary Huxleyian Brave New World is now being confronted with down-to-earth realist wisdom, pointed to by Machiavelli in his seminal ‘Prince’, that even the strongest states and leaders are sometimes helpless in the face of mighty Fortune. In the times of epidemic, we are now reminded that precautions are a vital part of politics. The essence of precautions lies in pre-emptive actions and getting prepared for bad times before they arrive.
Coronavirus will be with us in a week, in a month, in a year and will not be obscured by new sensations. Are we ready for this? As for now, we all live in collective fear, more and more tired of ‘social distancing’, which makes our minds operating in the range between anxiety, obsession, to the utter paranoia of contact with other people.
States close their borders, ground their citizens to protect them from external threats. The result of this protective reaction is the emergence of a completely new and potentially even greater threat of global economic collapse. Tackling epidemics turns out to be essentially and inevitably self-destructive. The reaction to the outbreak was supposed to protect people from death and the health systems against a spectacular collapse, but the same protective movement threatens millions of other people – depriving them of income almost overnight, ruins businesses and entire economic sectors. All this leads to potentially massive social distrust and uncertainty undermining the elementary social capital that is essential in society and the economy. The helplessness of many people can easily be turned into desperation. And this takes place in the ominous silence of the streets, the terrifying boredom of home closure of some and growing affright of others, who are just momentarily losing their jobs, wealth and prospects. Welcome to the ‘New Times’.
Jan Grzymski is post-doc at Centre of Migration Research, Warsaw University, Poland