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The Strangeness of Covid Times

We are now living through a global epidemic, a strange new phenomenon which has altered life as we knew it, in many ways. One of the key ways in which life has been altered is our sense and understanding of time. Which is one of the contributors to our emotional distress. Let me elaborate a little.

Typically we conceptualise time in a linear way with clear boundaries. Examples:  Yesterday, today, tomorrow. Past, present, future.  Kal, aaj aur Kal.  That was then and this is now. Earlier/Sooner and Later. Before and After.

Implicit in these divisions are clear boundaries, when one thing ends and the other begins.  Yesterday ends when today begins and tomorrow begins when today ends. There is a clear sense of start and finish, beginning and end.

We also divide time into units – a day, a week, a month, a quarter, a year, a decade, a century. A favourite interview question is “where do you see yourself five years from now?”  These units also have finite boundaries which are clear.  With the advent of watches and clocks, we have achieved great precision in the measurement of time, by breaking it up into seconds and minutes.  Digital clocks have allowed us even greater precision in measuring time in the fractions of seconds, nano-seconds, split-seconds.

And then there is the merging of movement with time, with pairs of opposites such as forwards and backwards, progress and regress, entry and exit.  These concepts also carry an inbuilt sense of linearity as well as definite boundaries and anchors to conceptualize.

These neat divisions of time into linear packets gives us a sense of stability, order and predictability.  It allows us to anticipate and plan for activities that we need to do and want to do.  Even the division of time into cycles rather than linear packets is an attempt to find patterns and hence predictability and order.  Over long periods, there are patterns that repeat in familiar ways and these are the cycles that form the rhythm of life.  So there are business cycles, economic cycles, historical cycles etc.

A typical natural disaster is an event with a finite timeline and this helps us conceptualize and narrativize our experience within the linear frames of time.  An earthquake lasts for a few minutes.  A tsunami for a few hours.  A cyclone for some days or weeks.  Floods also happen during the course of a few days.  Forest fires rage for a few weeks and then burn themselves out.  So, these disasters also can be conceptualized using linear concepts.  Before the fire/flood, after the fire/flood.

We can also enterinto the event and exit out of it, both experientially and mentally.  Even when people who have lived through the disaster look back on it, five, ten or twenty years later, they can visualize the before and after, the entry and exit.  They know they are locating themselves in the present, looking back to the past and looking ahead to the future.

Contrast all of these with our experience of the Covid-19 disease and the Corona Virus Pandemic.  Nothing is definitive about it and everything is a moving goalpost.  The pandemic burst into our lives and on a certain date, March 24th, a lockdown was imposed on the entire nation within a span of 4 hours.  A whole nation of 1.3 billion people were pushed inside their homes and told to stay there for 21 days.  Curfew-like conditions were imposed, essential supplies for living were made available and people were all asked to work from home.

Now we are still living the pandemic experience, 8 weeks later.  At that time, it was thought that the virus could be conquered through a draconian measure.  Now we are told that we have to learn to live with the virus.  The virus isn’t going away so quickly.  And neither can we live in a permanent state of total lockdown.  Normalcy has to resume, but with a specific set of rules – wear masks, keep distance, wash hands, sanitize hands, undergo temperature checks multiple times a day depending upon where you enter or exit etc etc.  Some activities are allowed and many are disallowed.  Some places are open and many are shut.  Anything that was open yesterday can shut tomorrow.  And any activity allowed today can also shut tomorrow.  There is nothing citizens can do about it, except to accept it and live with it.

We also have no idea what the markers or defining signs of closure to this pandemic experience are. Where will be transition to, from “Living with the Virus” and Lockdown 4.0?  We could be living through Lockdown version 15.0 in 2021 April for all we know.  We long and hope for the past as we knew it in 2019 and earlier, to return.  Yet, we also know deep down within us, that THAT PAST as we knew it can never come back…because that is the very nature of the past, it is over.  It can be relived in memory but it can’t return.

Therefore the pandemic experience is anchored into a constantly moving, shape-shifting and ever-evolving sense of time.  Is time at a stand-still?  No, it is not.  If our personal and collective pandemic experience is moving, then what direction is it headed in?  We don’t know.  Can we pin it down into a linear narrative of progress? Progress suggests that we are heading in a known direction, but are we?  Is there something called a new normal?  Not clear.  If we want to categorize our experience into past, present and future – the pre-covid past has a clear cut-off point and date.  But how the present will change into a future is very fuzzy.

Right now, the way we are describing the state in which we find ourselves, in which linear notions of time are being severely challenged, is to just label the state as “uncertainty” and then to describe all the emotions that we as people go through in living with high “uncertainty” as emotional stress and distress.

Perhaps we will learn to label these new experiences of time too, just to make sense of it all.  We may coin new descriptors for non-linear time such as flow-time, pandemic-time, shifting-time.  The best analogy for the sense of non-linear time that we will experience during the covid pandemic, that I can think of is, moving in the desert.  The sand is constantly shifting with the wind, the sand-dunes come closer and recede from time-to-time, we see mirages, that which we wish to see, but don’t actually exist.  The boundaries of the desert are both defined and undefined such that entry and exit points are also not clearly demarcated.  So also our sense of time as we live through the pandemic.