Time in the ‘Time of Corona’

Katrine Meldgaard Kjær, Clare Southerton, Marianne Clark, Ash Watson

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread globally, our experiences of it have shifted over time since initial reports of the virus hit the headlines in January. These temporal shifts can be subtle, almost negligible, or more confronting. Yet even when they are more noticeable, it can be hard to orient yourself to how the pandemic felt only weeks earlier. Things feel so slippery in the ‘time of Corona’. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to be ‘felt’ throughout Australia, Katrine (one of the authors of this blog post), was visiting the Vitalities Lab from Denmark and had to return home suddenly — only two weeks into a planned four-week trip. The rest of us, despite living in the same area of Sydney, were also distanced as local movement restrictions set in and we became confined to our homes. Now, six months later, the pandemic continues to unfold locally as well as globally in unpredictable ways. We continue to live with and navigate new waves of infections and changing social restrictions that impact our work and the ways we connect and collaborate with others.  

Katrine’s sudden departure was jarring, a moment that marked the beginning of a rapidly shifting timeline. Despite — or perhaps because of  — the uncertainty we all faced, we wanted to keep writing together as a way to maintain the engagement and support we found in each other as four early-career academics. Katrine initiated a collaborative document so we could share our experiences  and reflections as the pandemic unfolded. All four authors wrote into a Google Doc whenever we felt like it, not distinguishing between who wrote what, not following any particular format or timeline, and each writing into the space where the previous writer had finished, regardless of the narrative thread. These contributions varied wildly, oscillating between an ‘up close and personal’ approach documenting our feelings or personal responses to the unfolding news each day as we tried to make sense of new routines, as well as more arms-length approaches to thinking through the social and political complexities of the pandemic.

Now, we realise we’ve been writing this document for more than six months and what we have is a record, of sorts, of our own COVID era(s). Yet, looking at the 9000 word document after two months of writing and sharing the odd Skype call, we recognise that what we have is much more than the chronicling of a series of specific moments, experiences and thoughts from the COVID-19 time. Rather when taken as a whole, the document reveals something about the peculiar, slightly disorienting quality of ‘COVID time’ and our experiences of it.

Others have written about the strangeness of this time and the way our perception of time has changed, with references to things that are ‘in the time of Corona’. Like ‘love in the time of corona’ or ‘trust in the time of COVID19’ or ‘cleaning in the time of coronavirus’ or ‘how to do [insert literally anything here] in the time of COVID’. There are also a growing number of memes and social media posts that point to the unusual and distorted way time seems to unfold right now; somehow both frantically accelerated and painstakingly slow at the same time. It seems we are unsettled by this unfamiliar experience of time, and are searching for ways to express and make sense of the feeling that we are living in a very specific and extraordinary time. But, even this is not quite accurate. We are not so much living in a specific period of time (because we don’t know when this time will end, and even its beginnings were somewhat murky). Rather, the quality of time has changed. Any illusion of time as linear, predictable and quantifiable, has been completely disrupted. Time now seems even more multiple, elastic and unpredictable than ever. 

We often think about time as that which progresses ‘naturally’ forward at a steady pace and is broken up into predictable units (minutes, hours, days) that structure our days and lives, something that is challenged in COVID time. During the COVID-19 pandemic the hours, days, and weeks just feel different than they used to. Schools, workplaces and businesses are re-opening and closing in what feels like a haphazard trajectory. Time is neither linear or predictable nor is it associated with steady progress. Rather time is peculiar, both accelerated and slowed down, bringing both hope and despair as we realise this is far from over.

Moments that disrupt our sense of time as linear are hardly new though. While waiting in a waiting room to hear the outcome of a medical test, for example, the passage of time can seem very different to when we’re spending an enjoyable evening with friends (if we’re ever able to do that again). Indeed, this linear narrative of time has long been critiqued by Indigenous and First Nations scholars who highlight the ways that chronological ‘clock time’ has been imposed as part of violent colonising processes and indigenous ways of marking time were (and continue to be) denigrated as ‘backward’.

Throughout western history, time has also been conceptualised in alternative ways that might help us make sense of our experience of COVID time. French philosopher Henri Bergson, for instance, argued that time should not be understood quantitatively, as units that can be measured — days, hours, minutes — but rather qualitatively as what he called duration. By this Bergson means that understanding time as duration means thinking about  time as a complex layering, a constant process of becoming such that it is not possible to actually capture, divide, or quantify it.

Elizabeth Freeman also imagines time as qualitative and argues that time and norms are closely connected, and that the quantification of time can have normative effects: she calls this “chrononormativity”. She argues that we expect lifespans to play out in predictable, linear (heteronormative) paths as we move through life stages — there is a ‘right time’ to commit to a monogamous relationship, a ‘right time’ to have children, a ‘right time’ to have certain types of careers, and so on. Freeman argues that the idea of the steady, linear progression of doing things at certain times is related to cultural separations between what is considered  ‘normal’ from what is considered ‘deviant’ or ‘different’. 

In COVID times, we see this reconfigured in ideas of the ‘right time’ to go back to work, the ‘right time’ to re-open institutions, the ‘right time’ to react to new outbreaks etc. The deep ties between ideas of time and norms for structuring life are also evident in the stress tied to the ways in which COVID time does not unfold as we ‘normally’ expect time to, with specific dates marking the ‘normal’ rhythm of going (back to), for example, school or work. 

Therefore, as COVID continues to unfold in unpredictable and nonlinear ways, we are forced to confront our limited understanding and vocabulary of time. The pandemic is indeed not unfolding in a linear way. Instead, it is filled with openings, closings, going back and forths. Embracing alternative ways of thinking about time and normality may be helpful tools as we attempt to make sense of ‘Corona time’ and for alleviating the stress associated with the disruption of ‘normal’ time as we usually know it. 

Published by Clare Southerton

Clare is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Vitalities Lab, Social Policy Research Centre and Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW Sydney.

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