COVID-19’s own groundhog day

The pandemic has irrevocably and fundamentally changed our perception of time and space

January 12, 2022 10:47 am | Updated 10:56 am IST

 Conceptual health image, Global crisis of Covid-19 virus epidemic over world map. Covid-19 virus illustration downloaded from CDC than layered and manipulated. for more information please visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site: https://www.cdc.gov/media/subtopic/images.htm NASA world map image layered and used; https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/NightLights/page3.php

Conceptual health image, Global crisis of Covid-19 virus epidemic over world map. Covid-19 virus illustration downloaded from CDC than layered and manipulated. for more information please visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site: https://www.cdc.gov/media/subtopic/images.htm NASA world map image layered and used; https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/NightLights/page3.php

Parui A, Simi Raj M. “The COVID-19 crisis chronotope: The pandemic as matter, metaphor and memory.” Memory Studies . 2021;14(6):1431-1444. doi: 10.1177/17506980211054346

As we spent nearly two years in the cavernous belly of COVID-19, one day endlessly coalescing into the other, we sometimes lost track of the time or the space we inhabit. In regular conversation, or what was ‘regular’ at that point of time and was possibly conducted online, we rued about the darkness the world had plunged into; and how, for man, a social animal, company was everything and perish he would, without it.

Conversations also often centered around speculation about what day of the week, or month of the year it was, subjects that pre-COVID would have been easily dismissed with quoting the calendar. While it is true that the passage of time cannot be alienated from the perception of humans, this was different. This was black and white dystopia. Some perceived time as racing across on roller blades, for others, it seemed to have completely come to a grinding halt. Neither time nor space were what we were used to. Something has indeed irrevocably changed, fundamentally, with the COVID-19 pandemic.

How landscape changed

This is what researchers from IIT Madras have tried to qualify to an extent in their recent paper on ‘The COVID-19 crisis chronotope: The pandemic as matter, metaphor and memory,’ which has appeared in the Journal of Memory Studies (Sage) . As they attempt to traverse this cavernous landscape, where time seemed to be frozen and space immaterial, Avishek Parui and Merin Simi Raj, naturally seek insights from that rarefied conjunction between science and philosophy.

“Our idea of space and time has changed profoundly, and naturally, this is going to have a definite psychological and social impact. It has changed the fundamental nature of human relationships, and how we now perceive what was ‘normal’, routine,” explains Dr. Parui. He and his co-author both belong to IIT Madras. The lockdowns that forced individuals to stay confined at home, either singly or in family units, erased the familiar quotidian and its humdrum, replacing it with a feeling of time running on loop. The equivalent of the Bill Murray film of 1993 —Groundhog Day. Bill Murray, a weatherman gets stuck on a single day, that repeats over and over only for him. In a fantasy, solutions are relatively easy —the protagonist could figure out how to break out of the loop, after several repeats of the same day, of course. The pandemic arguably precipitated the world’s Groundhog Day.

Not just a medical condition

“COVID-19 should not be seen just as a medical condition. The space and time we took for granted appears to be fractioned now. We cannot ignore any aspect of a condition that changes our conception of time and space,” Dr. Parui explains. His article therefore aimed at examining the possibility of conceiving and conceptualizing COVID-19 as a crisis chronotope, using Russian philosopher Mikhail Bhaktin’s concept that examines processes whereby familiar spaces turn to sites of crisis and familiar time gets suspended and mapped on to different dimensions of temporality. It also examines the “possible configurations and emergence of COVID-19 as a complex connective metaphor, in the realm of individual and collective memory.”

It is not merely a feeling of being trapped in time that seems to have stopped or at least slowed down, explains Dr. Parui. The impact this alienation and defamiliarisation of once familiar spaces has on human behaviour is deep, he points out. The fear of contagion has also impacted on human concepts of trust and touch. “Sharing a cup of tea or coffee, meeting someone at the coffee shop or park, this was not possible any more. The moment you step out of home, if you had to, all you encountered was masked up entities. At a literal level, we did not really meet people, we were negotiating with incomplete or partial entities.”

It is quite ironic that a single problem that enveloped the globe with its spike protein did not foster a sense of solidarity. “Though we were one big family affected by the same virus, COVID-19 pushed us away from each other, and created an enormous sense of alienation,” Dr. Parui articulates.

A paper in the Journal of Affective Disorders , in December 2020, by a Chinese research group (Yue Zhu et al) studied the impact of alienation caused by the pandemic on individuals: Social distancing may have an impact on individuals’ mental health by the feeling of alienation, which was moderated by affective disorders. The authors went on to recommend that clinical psychologists should identify individuals’ particular cognition and mental disorders to provide a more accurate and adequate intervention for them.

A tactility crisis

The IIT team also examined the situation in New Delhi, where they noted that the conversion of public parks to crematoria and funeral sites had a huge psychological impact on the people —particularly children and senior citizens. “This ad hoc remapping — what did it do to urban geography? Places that are classically places of entertainment overnight became places of death and despair. These factors have contributed to trauma that has resulted in a lack of trust and a tactility crisis.”

Yes, a tactility crisis, as the deep suspicion of contagion, and COVID-19 safety protocols effectively put distance between people, not allowing them the normal contact that people are used to. Historically, the two World Wars too had an impact on people’s consumption of space and time, but in terms of sheer magnitude, the Spanish Flu a 100 years ago is the only event that might bear up in comparison.

However, the problem with that was that it had little or no representation in literature, and thus the memory has not survived.

Dr Parui explains, “With COVID-19 there is no dearth of representation —through art, paint, poetry, film, documentary and social media. This will ensure that it will have a much larger impact on collective memory, and will probably remain there forever.”

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