In an almost prophetic way, medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris published his book, Human Extinction and the Pandemic Imaginary, just a few months before the new coronavirus began spreading throughout the world. The final chapter of his book discusses the temporal aspect of post-pandemics. There, he begins by analyzing the social constructs of the ‘end’ and of what happens ‘after the end’ of a pandemic. In his footsteps, we would like to further explore what type of possible temporality the ‘afterwards’ of the COVID-19 pandemic may be. Our inquiry will begin from the point of view of the social order: who controls these constructs of the ‘end’ and of the ‘after.’ One might think that the ‘end’ of a pandemic is a professional call, that it boils down to a scientist crunching some numbers and looking at graphs to declare the pandemic over. On the other hand, it can also be seen as a political call, where the sovereign decides to set life to an ‘after’-pandemic state. Lynteris’s distinction will help us chart the interaction between three possible temporalities of COVID-19: post, after and an additional temporal modality that we suggest: in-limbo. Furthermore, we would like to explore their implications for our lives and ask whether it is even possible to ‘end’ the pandemic.
Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist, discussed the idea that time and space are attributes of social life. The watch is a perfect example of how social life and temporality are intertwined: watches dictate our schedules and actions, thus helping to shape our social conventions of time. Or, at least, that was the case before we “lost” our sense of time during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of the aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic are temporal, such as the length of time that the coronavirus persists on surfaces or the optimal duration of an effective quarantine or lockdown. Seeing that the pandemic, and the temporal issues it raises, are entirely novel and recent, it has forced us into a new temporal dimension, which might be perceived by some as the temporality of time-suspension.
Temporality can sometimes be described as a binary structure when it is constructed against something else. The COVID-19 temporality is constructed against the existing temporal structure of hours, days, and years. We suggest that, when these temporal structures lose meaning, a new temporality is defined, one that is shaped by the lack of structure that is, in a way, a temporality of time-suspension.
Another aspect of temporality is the simultaneous acceleration and deceleration of time. If you are unemployed and drifting to melancholia, time may be slowing down, perhaps even coming to a complete halt. If you happen to work full time or are spending quality time with people you love, time may be ‘flying’ by at an unprecedented (or regular) speed. Perhaps, you are even fortunate enough for time to be moving both quickly and slowly at once, enabling you to feel a sense of purpose while still enjoying ‘slow’ living.
In the 2010 movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays a thief who steals ideas from people by invading their dreams. Inception presents the viewers with three distinct temporalities: reality (real-time), dream states (post-time), and a state of limbo (in-between). Similarly, we choose to question what the possible temporalities of the widely discussed post-coronavirus period are. This question cannot be answered without first considering the presuppositions of even calling it a post-corona period. Perhaps, the event is not over. Maybe we should examine instead a with-corona temporality of coexistence (i.e., the coronavirus is here to stay), or it may boil down to a limbo-corona state (i.e., we can expect the virus and the pandemic to return). Similarly, even the attempt to convert the pandemic back to an epidemic is not a purely scientific task; it also heavily relies on underlining specific kinds of temporalities.
At this point, we would like to argue that there are two main competing discourses that try to dictate the temporality of the virus. The first, the political discourse, views time in terms of an absolute “beginning” and “end,” such as the pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 eras. The second is the scientific discourse that refers to the temporality of the virus in terms of an ongoing event that we need to learn how to live with.
The political discourse is an absolute one: we are either in a pre-COVID-19 or a post-COVID-19 state. The main variable is what should the defining factor of when the pandemic has reached the end be. Is it when the last patient recovers? When schools are back? Or when everyone returns to work and “the economy” is back on track? The shared assumption here is that someone or something decides which one or more of these events or factors signifies that the passage into the post–corona phase has taken place. Therefore, we may expect that the end in places like Wuhan, New York, or São Paulo will look very different. These different ‘endings’ raise issues such as the question of cost: what will the price of the chosen ending criteria be, and, more importantly, who will be the ones paying for it?
The second discourse operates with a scientifically constructed temporality. It attempts to predict the future in the near- and in the long-term. Its main concern is the matter of if or when the virus will “strike again” and our preparedness for this second wave. It focuses on critical factors, such as whether we will be immune or whether we are doomed to stay for months at home each year due to a “COVID-19 annual leave.”
In his book, Lynteris claims that the meanings of the ‘end’ and ‘after the end’ of pandemics collapse into one another. According to him, the ‘end’ and the ‘after’ are temporal structures, so that what lies ‘after the end’ is also the ‘end’ of any ‘after’. In other words, the end of a pandemic is an absolute ending; the period after the next pandemic is a time when there can be no ‘after,’ no consequence, no future. For such a temporal register to exist what is required in the first place is a point of subjectivation: that of a subject capable of having an impact on the world.
In our reality today, political discourse refers to the temporality of the pandemic as a crisis that has a beginning and an end. In contrast, scientific discourse approaches this event as endless until science comes up with a permanent solution. It might be better to take a different point of view that combines the two. Despite Lynteris’s vision of a complete de-institutionalization of a post-pandemic era, we argue that the temporal state of the pandemic is a limbo state. Just like in the movie Inception, we cannot tell the difference between dream and reality. Currently, we are drifting in-between temporal states. The pandemic did not cause the collapse of social institutions; it just exposed their temporal presuppositions. Given this array of temporalities, we are probably going to be drifting between them.