Lectures

Epidemic Times

This article is part of the series:

Epidemics like Covid-19 fundamentally change the order of time. The present moves faster, the past seems further removed, and the future appears completely unpredictable. Everyday homogenous time splits up into different and often contradictory temporal logics. The time of the virus, the time of capitalism, and the time of political decisions compete, challenge, and clash with each other, impacting human lives in different ways (Adam 1994).

The Now and the Phases of an Epidemic

The 11th of March was the day when it became necessary to timestamp everything we said, at least that which had to do with the future. In the morning Norwegian people still lived in a society by and large functioning as usual; by the evening Norway was headed towards lockdown. Every new announcement reported another cancellation due to risk of contagion. In offices at businesses and institutions all over the country people were impelled to qualify their statements with exact times, down to the very minute: “At 11:35 this is the best information we have” – all the while knowing that at 14:15 the situation could be completely different, depending on the assessments, advice and regulations from the government, as well as people’s responses to these. It was as if the spread of Covid-19 had made time speed up or accelerate (Rosa 2013).

But time kept its usual rhythm. The hours had just as many minutes, the minutes just as many seconds as before. The difference was that the events that unfolded, which changed Norway in a way that would have felt dramatic if they were stretched out across a decade, were now taking place in a matter of minutes. Since the coronavirus got loose in the Norwegian population we live in a new time, or rather, in several new times, defined no longer by work and leisure, weekdays and weekends, electoral cycles, sports championships or celebrations and holidays, but by phases in the life of the epidemic, rates of spread, mutations times, quarantine periods, the time it takes to make a vaccine, incubation time, etc.

The epidemic disintegrates normal time and accelerates it. Both people’s conceptions and the assessments of experts made today can be outdated tomorrow. Many will now experience that the situation continuously catches up with and overruns their plans. The Norwegian Minister of Health Bent Høie illustrated this nicely when he stated on the morning of March 10th that he expected that “the current phase will continue a few weeks before we enter into a new phase”; during a press conference around dinnertime on the same day he announced that the epidemic in Norway had already passed into this next phase. On social media the authorities were met with massive criticism for not responding quickly enough, facing charges that measures should have put in place a long time ago. Had the government put drastic measures in place earlier, we could have stopped the spread, it was alleged. On the other hand, the Ministry of Health and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health put forth an understanding of the phases of the epidemic (NIPH 2020). Each phase demanded different infection control measures. Reducing social contact did not belong to phase 1, but only became an effective measure during phase 3, once the virus had spread in the population. Thinking based on “sooner-rather-than-later”, or on a phase-conception, represent two competing views of time which are not easily made compatible. The first one is presentist and evaluates everything that has been done or has not been done based on where we are now (Hartog 2013). The second one insists that previous demands and imperative actions were specific and appropriate to those specific phases. The same applies to decisions regarding the future. What may seem right to do now, wasn’t necessarily what was right to do then, and may not necessarily be what is right to do tomorrow.

Dealing with the unknown

Is the past useful at all when the pace of change is so fast (Koselleck 2004)? As it turns out, very much so. In the battle against the coronavirus old and new technology are used side by side. New technology is not necessarily better. Old technologies such as quarantine, hygiene and contact tracing are being prioritized just as much, if not more, than advanced, modern technology like drones, infrared cameras and digital epidemiology. Data concerning the development of the outbreak is posted continuously on social media, and gives us the feeling that we can track the epidemic in real-time. When the Spanish flu ravaged the world a century ago, no one had the possibility of sharing information that fast; both the work of counting infected cases and casualties, as well as the global scope of the pandemic, was left to historians. Today digital technology allows the number of infected cases and casualties to flicker on the screen in real-time.

Dealing with an epidemic of this kind involves dealing with the unknown. In the beginning there is very little solid ground to stand on. Knowledge about other epidemic outbreaks is only partially applicable. The influenza virus that devastated the world during 1918 is different from the coronavirus. The timescale now is different than it was then. We do not know how fast the virus is transmitted, what the incubation time is, or how long it can survive on different surfaces. How fast and how long do you get sick? How long is the epidemic going to continue to wreak havoc upon us? Now that we have accumulated three or four months of experience with the virus, we are starting to acquire more knowledge, and we know more about what works and what doesn’t work. This in turns makes it possible to make plans. Our space of experience and our horizon of expectation are starting to converge again, after having been seemingly completely disconnected for some weeks (Koselleck 2004).

From the Future, Where I Currently Am”

People studying time have written much about future expectations, and how a sense of acceleration, impending danger and disaster-preparedness can lead to deferring democratic processes, or even destabilizing them altogether (Jordheim and Wigen 2018). During a large-scale epidemic the biological, social and political times will become out of sync with each other. Political and social measures will not always manage to keep up with the development and spread of the virus. The coronavirus spreads according to a certain tempo, while devising emergency readiness and responses necessarily has to follow another kind of rhythm. In response to this the Norwegian government wanted to introduce emergency legislation almost overnight, which would grant the executive branch expanded authority. In Norway, the lawyers pulled the breaks. In Hungary, however, the parliament recently passed an emergency law granting the government indefinite, extensive powers, enabling Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree as long as the crisis lasts. In even more authoritarian regimes like China normal democratic processes, and thus also political and social time, can be accelerated even more easily, for example when a hospital was built in just ten days. 

For several weeks we have seen the number of confirmed cases rise first slowly, then exponentially. But these numbers no longer reflect the number of true cases in the population, and the number of hospitalizations reveal a much wider spread in the population at large. In an attempt to come to terms with the future we compare ourselves with other countries that lie “ahead of us” in epidemic time, where the epidemic has “developed further”, like China, Italy or Spain. Because the pandemic didn’t arrive in each country simultaneously, we have to synchronize the epidemic trajectory across all the different countries (Jordheim 2017). One way to do this is to the place “the first confirmed case” as day zero. And then we can assume that with comparable measures as ours the epidemic will pan out relatively similarly as in other countries. This has produced statements such as “we are where Italy was two weeks ago.” But it also means that Italy’s present is our future, unless we take different courses of action and enact different measures. Recently an Italian journalist addressed the American people with a message “from the future, where I currently am.” The message was that measures that might seem drastic today, would be completely necessary tomorrow. Precisely this future is in the process of becoming America’s present. But still Italy serves as the worst-case example for countries all over the world of what the future might hold.

This sets the stage for a paradoxical experience of time. On the one hand, the future is more open and unpredictable than ever; on the other hand it is playing out already, in one or more countries, which are not too distant from us. Authorities and individuals carry out measures to avoid a future that has already taken place, somewhere.

What Now?

What can we do in the face of this new, unpredictable time regime? Time is physically and visibly absent, in the empty urban spaces and schools that are shut down, but it is deeply ingrained in us. Until recently most of us lived each day according to the same rhythm (Zerubavel 1985). The coronavirus effects this entire time regime, and makes us uncertain and anxious. The best we can hope for to counteract the feeling of a world out of sync is to create new rhythms, new shared times, which we can use to orient ourselves. This is taking place in real-time: When people all over the world take to their balconies and windows at 18 o’clock to applaud the healthcare workers and their effort to combat the epidemic, or when people from the Facebook-group “Oslo helps Oslo” contribute to helping others maintain their daily rhythm by offering to help with shopping, transport, walking the dog, or when each and every one of us find new rhythms to communicate with friends and family, on the phone, or through new digital platforms. This is how we find new ways to stay connected in time, which ultimately serves to keep society together now that our usual time regimes have collapsed.

References

Adam, B (1994) Time and Social Theory, London: Polity Press.

Engelmann, L (2020) #COVID19: The Spectacle of Real-Time Surveillance.

Hartog, F (2015) Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jordheim, H (2017) Synchronizing the World: Synchronism as Historiographical Practice, Then and Now, History of the Present, 7 (1): 59–95.

Jordheim, H., and E. Wigen. 2018. “Conceptual Synchronisation: From Progress to Crisis.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 46(3):421–439.

Koselleck, R (2018) Sediments of Time. On Possible Histories. Translated by Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press.

Koselleck, R (2004) Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Trans. Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) (2020). Facts about infection control measures during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Peckham, R (2020) Coronavirus: the Low Tech of the High Tech

Rosa, H (2013) Social Acceleration. A New Theory of Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press.

Zerubavel, Eviatar (1985) Hidden Rhythms. Schedules and Calendars in Social Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


Helge Jordheim is a professor of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. 

Anne Kveim Lie is an associate professor of  Medical History at the University of Oslo 

Erik Ljungberg is a master student in European Culture at the University of Oslo

Einar Wigen is an associate professor of Turkish studies at the University of Oslo 

All four are members of the research project Lifetimes of Epidemics in Europe and the Middle East, headed by Einar Wigen.  


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