April fool anyone? Or perhaps an April fish?
Not in the mood?
No, me neither. Although my younger daughter cling-filmed the toilet bowl and salted her mother’s morning cup of tea. My age-dulled palate barely registered the salt, and an expression of disgust had to be prompted: ‘How’s your tea Mum?’
But I don’t detect a great appetite for hoaxes this All Fools Day. The world is already unsteady enough without the need for pranks.
The rules and assumptions that were safe yesterday no longer apply today. Advice, guidelines, orders from colleagues, managers, agencies, leaders come regularly and are regularly updated. So regularly that it is hard to keep track.
We are grasping for suitable metaphors to make sense of the changing reality around us. How do we make sense of what the pandemic means to us singularly and collectively? Illness acts like a sponge and metaphor is how we experience illness, as Susan Sontag taught us.
The metaphors through which to interpret the pandemic world are unreliable; not working.
Are we ‘at war’? A difficult war with an invisible enemy. Given the shortage of testing kits, the presence of the enemy is hard to reliably discern, since symptoms of infection may vary from almost undetectable, to seriously debilitating and fatal. We don’t know whether we are carrying the hidden enemy and so we all represent a potential threat of infection to others. War metaphors break down when there are no allies and every person could be a traitor. We are a collective body, where infection and risk belong to us all and individuals cannot be divided into friend or foe. How can we fight a war against a hidden and internal enemy in a time of social isolation and digital hyper-connectivity? Some estimates of how the virus spreads suggest that no measures exist that could have controlled its transmission, given the density and frequency of travel networks.
A powerful unseen enemy provokes debilitating anxiety. Panic buying pasta and toilet paper may be an absurd response to a viral pandemic, but in the face of highly distributed, instantly updateable yet unstable information about an uncertain enemy, perhaps reasonable responses are beyond everyday reach.
Are we ‘all in this together’? Not in the ability to avoid infection, nor in our chances of survival. Self-isolating in living quarters that share cooking, sleeping and washing facilities? Not so easy. Some social divisions are being re-inscribed by threat of infection: how can sex-workers earn a living? People over 70 and those with a suppressed immune system have designated vulnerable. But other risk groups are emergent from data that are not yet collated or comparable. To what extent is our understanding of elevated risk an artefact of testing regimes? The gender differential in rates of survival from infection seems to cut across the differential population survival rates by nation state. Within Sweden and the UK, particular minority ethnic groups have shown disproportionately high Covid-19 mortality rates. But we don’t know whether this is a local effect or something indicating significant differences that should be urgently addressed.
The pandemic makes fools of us, as we try to find our feet on steady ground. What metaphors work to parse Covid-19 and the accompanying lockdown lifestyle? From where can we get a perspective on this moment that will show whether it is aberrational or the new normal?
My best offer is epistemologies of the south: if we consider our pandemic predicament in Northern Europe from the perspective of the majority world, can we re-assess our conditions? Daily fear of infection with a deadly pathogen, difficulties in accessing food and basic services, worries about old people’s chances of survival? This is ordinary life for significant populations in low and middle income countries. Living in poverty offers no protection from the pandemic which has arrived in India’s largest slum, and the suffering that Covid-19 brings will be all too familiar.
As rich world inhabitants, we cannot relativize away our suffering by aggressively counting our blessings. But just hoping for a return to normal, where war metaphors are redundant once again, is inadequate.
Can we take lessons learned in contemplating the virus into the post-pandemic world? Can we remember what we’ve learned of mobilisation for the common good and awareness of the commons as crucial for survival when we come out the other side? Under a pandemic, we are made aware that we are a single, world population in terms of the flow of infection. Can we also apply that truth to global social and economic justice?
On All Fools Day when metaphors are malfunctioning, perhaps some space opens up to allow this naïve and idealist hope to get established.