This is a time for sitting quietly, waiting (for the winter to unfold, and your turn for the vaccine), watching (remotely, because the action is all going on somewhere else), listening. To the pain which comes across in brief snatches in the television news from health workers and smitten families, lives interrupted and lost. Listening carefully to what the scientists say. Sceptically to pundits. And as for politicians, these should be heard with active mistrust, because they constantly tell lies, and if by chance they utter something half-true, it’s always the wrong half.
How long should we expect to wait? What actually are we waiting for?
I can only speak from my own experience and whatever sense of intersubjectivity this gives me, but this much is clear: waiting takes time, and time has become distorted, more elastic than usual, arrhythmic, the pace of everyday life suspended, time thrown out of gear. Is this because it’s been unhinged from its normal regularity, or because we now have time to be more aware of time than normal? Certain states – boredom, anxiety, depression – tend to slow the sense of the passage of time right down, but does this explain why months seem to have ticked past in minutes, while days have lasted for months? What’s more, this irregularity, which seems to float in the air, is accompanied by its opposite, the regularity of our biological life, the patterns of our sleep, our personal rhythms and routines, our daily life between waking and sleeping, but now (except for those who are working) independent of what day of the week it is. The only external regularity is the broadcasting schedule, most of which is distraction and escapism but includes the daily doses of news which anchor us in the ‘real’ world, as public affairs proceed each at their own pace. But this is also deceptive; the news is like an endless soap opera and the calendar which tells us the date is a human artifice. The year has changed but nature knows no boundary between one year and the next.
The pandemic continues to rage pretty much everywhere; the powers that be now have to play catch up with evolving mutations. The scientists say that faster and more decisive action at the very beginning would probably have suppressed the virus enough to keep these mutations at bay, but since the start every recommended course of action has been delayed by political ineptitude. An indecisive prime minister, whose cultivated bumbling has lost its charms, heads a cabinet of rank incompetents, with the result that there’s nothing the government has done that hasn’t gone wrong, and a docile opposition has not prevented the most egregious failures. Above all, the lack of an effective test and trace system, a necessary though not sufficient condition of controlling the spread of the virus and battling it down. These failures are largely down to ideological delusion, an untamed faith in the private sector to deliver what should be done by public bodies, especially local authorities, even in the reduced shape that austerity has left them in. Meanwhile, billions of pounds have gone down the financial drain.
In Ukania, one thing only has gone according to schedule, and at the very last minute, sovereignty was sealed with a deal that amounts to the most spectacular example in history of cutting off your national nose to spite your face. We can only wait to see what will be missing from supermarket shelves, and how many small exporters are forced out of business, but musicians and performers, who in pre-pandemic times earned a large proportion of their income from freedom of movement, face the immediate prospect of their exclusion from any arrangements for touring (no visa-free entry for their European counterparts for visiting Britain either.) They’ve already been hit by the lockdown, the cessation of live performance, and as self-employed freelancers, the absence of any kind of support beyond basic benefits. For those who are responsible for this neglect, Shakespeare comes to mind: ‘The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.’
What I most miss is sitting in the front stalls listening to a symphony orchestra at full blast. Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez are set to sing at Biden’s inauguration, if those are the kind of singers you trust. The disorienting sight, as if from a blockbuster movie, of Washington awaiting the inauguration under military occupation inverts the coordinates of the known world. A friend in Mexico sends me a witticism doing the rounds there: ‘Owing to travel restrictions due to covid, this year the US has had to organise a coup d’etat at home.’ As for what happens now, again we can only wait to see how the proverbial cookie crumbles, without too much expectation. I used to visit the States frequently and taught there for a semester twenty years ago; I have long supposed that it was highly susceptible to fascism. The route map to fascism is never the same and if Trump almost got there, he turned out to be incompetent even as a fascist, but leaves behind a leaderless mob whom no-one imagines will go away. Morbid symptoms.
As for the rest of the world, we are being kept largely in ignorance by the mainstream media, apart from outbursts of violence and rumbles about dictators. For the most part, the newsworthy world, which always had big blank spaces where mythical dragons roamed, has shrunk even further, much as borders have been closed against the virus. To get an inkling of what’s going on anywhere else you need to hunt out alternative news sources on the web (social media groups are useful but prone to irruptions of abuse), which must nevertheless be appraised for ideological biases, and for lacunae. In the mainstream, New Zealand and various countries in East Asia are held up as examples, but nothing is said about Vietnam, Kerala and Cuba, where the virus has been well controlled from the start – in Cuba’s case with the help of its own biomedicines – not by using high tech but because these are places under Communist rule which have extensive community health care systems able to mobilise volunteers to conduct door-by-door campaigns. Just saying.
I look out at the corner of the world outside my window, the bare trees, the birds visiting the garden, the slits of blue in the brooding winter sky. I live near two hospitals and ambulances go past with some frequency. There is hope in the arrival of a vaccine (whichever one). Overused cliché of the day: there is light at the end of the tunnel – unless, that is, we emerge into the darkness of night. The long night of a planet overwhelmed by irrational consumption and the destructive extrusions of wasteful production. Plastic everywhere. Production whose profits end up ceaselessly accumulating in tax havens instead of being put to equitable social use. A system with no means of redistribution, nor any means of imagining how to turn its promises of prosperity for all into reality. Worse than that. Sorely unprepared to act to end the mounting damage the system is doing to the biosphere, including the disequilibrium which increases the risk of zoonotic diseases like covid-19. But this is a threat that cannot wait.