The coronavirus, or rather the measurements taken against it, changed our perception of time. For many, the attempts to prevent the spread of the virus resulted in a feeling that time had come to a standstill.
When the pandemic first hit, this notion of stopped time was at the core of a widespread sense of crisis. For a while, many existed in survival mode, reacting to the demands of the day while unable to plan ahead. However, around the world, humans also began to deploy what in my work as a social anthropologist I call temporal agency—the ability to deliberately restructure, speed up or slow down the times we are living in.
Many of us learnt how to trick time in order to get through the new COVID-19 way of life. People restructured their daily lives by establishing new routines. Many had to navigate the differences between home and home office time, when both were spent in the same place. Some of us even learned how to tentatively plan ahead in a reality where the future was uncertain.
Many lockdowns (at least in the UK) later, I’m still impressed by the creative responses to the pandemic, particularly the many ways in which families and friends learned to share time at a distance. However, the one feature I particularly believe we should carry into the post-pandemic future is not that COVID creativity, but perseverance itself.
Endurance, maintenance and tenacity—the ingredients that make up perseverance—are under-appreciated even in times without crisis. However, they kept us going when life was hardest. Humanity surprised itself by quickly adapting to the new pandemic normal, but what counted more was the perseverance we deployed for more than a year without giving up. Creating a sustainable post-pandemic future will depend on it, too.
The pandemic taught us to appreciate, and even celebrate perseverance, not least the continuous daily work of all the heroic frontline workers (whose everyday work we’d taken for granted for too long). It also provided us with a chance to reconsider what’s important in our lives and how we want to organize our societies in the future. Many of us were made aware of what counts and what was missed the most.
Prominent amongst those things are the social relations that make us who we are -– with family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues, even those we had all those unnecessary fights with during lockdown.
In the post-pandemic future, we should never again take them for granted, nor all the hugs, kisses and handshakes. We avoid doing that by appreciating the work that goes into maintaining these social relationships.
Apart from time for family and friends, we also yearned for other times -– for travel and leisure, for example. We’d taken for granted the distinction between work and leisure, office and home time, and we’ll have to take time again to renegotiate these distinctions. Whatever we come up with in the end, this new work-life balance will also have to stand the test of time—whether it can endure in the future and we in it.
Endurance and exhaustion
During the pandemic, many people had to come up with new ideas and change their behavior. But once that change had happened, we were forced to maintain and endure our response to the pandemic.
The daily exercises, weekly Zoom calls with relatives or prolonged homeschooling efforts were all examples of endurance. In many places, perseverance shaped the latter part of the pandemic—it was all about making it through a few more dark winter days and resisting general exhaustion and lockdown fatigue.
Endurance is important to society in general. In a recent paper, I looked into why this matters in the context of urban decline in postindustrial cities.
As cities change, their inhabitants are forced to adapt their behavior to new social, economic and political circumstances. Through this change, the fight to keep something you love alive requires endurance. Sustaining a social club that struggles to find new members or preserving your local community center from closure entails plenty of perseverance. Maintaining part of your urban infrastructure that suffers from funding cuts—your youth club or local park—is a revolutionary act, because it withstands the change others intended for it.
This work of maintenance and repair is at the core of our societies. It might look less interesting than attempts at making a difference, but without it everything around us would collapse.
The end of this pandemic will not be a sharp cut. It will be gradual and, as humanity will have to pace itself, there will be more need for endurance. In the best case, the experiences of the pandemic will help us determine what this future should look like.
Although the pandemic will at some point be over, there are enough crises yet that demand our attention: economic, social, ecological and political ones as well as potential future pandemics. The same sense of endurance, sustainability and perseverance will have to characterize our responses to those, too.
It is not enough to wait for a shortcut out of climate change or a cure-all for economic decline. A truly sustainable solution to these crises will have to be maintained in new everyday lives and routines. It will have to work with a different understanding of what human agency is all about.
Like during the pandemic, we not only have to establish new ideas, but make them work in the long run.