Photo: Court Royal Convalescent Home from Alwyn Ladell Flickr photo stream

An extended period of fatigue is a feature of COVID-19, lingering and depleting the body and the mind long after the acute symptoms of infection have come and gone.  Fatigue is not just present in what we refer to as Long COVID.  Cases classed as being supposedly mild are often followed by weariness after moderate exertion or the clouding and obscuring of thoughts with brain fog, which renders memory and concentration sluggish and weak. A period to convalesce would seem to be in order.

The obvious solution to post-COVID fatigue is to allow those who are recovering for rest and recuperation, an extended time off from daily duties in all spheres of life to rebuild and recuperate to allow for a successful return to work.  Afterall, presenteeism (when employees attend work but are still ill) is not productive either.  As one study of presenteeism noted:

1.5 days of work time are lost due to presenteeism for every one day lost due to absenteeism, and the cost of presenteeism to business is double that of absenteeism, amounting to about £21.2 billion per year.

As reasonable as this request for recuperation may be, it is an opportunity that us denied in Britain today.  So why can’t we find the time to convalesce for COVID-19, or any other debilitating illness?

The popular perception of convalescence is found in 18th century literature. It is a highly classed and gendered image of a fragile – but very wealthy – heroine reclining on a chaise longue wearing a diaphanous dress supping on nutritious thin broth. As Krienke has laid out in her history of convalescence in Victorian Britain that image is far from the whole picture.  Convalescence was open to the working classes as well – though often mediated through the imposition of middle-class values and norms on working class bodies and minds.  Notably convalescence homes for workers in the Victorian period, delivered by the state or by volunteers, were not simply about restoring the body of the sick citizen, but providing a space away from the hidden and not so hidden injuries of class and urban life:

Beyond food and fresh air, the home sought to cultivate a comprehensive environment that would offer mental as well as physical relief from the relentless demands of work in the industrialized modern world.

The Victorian convalescence home was no doubt far from perfect, but it does indicate that at a point when capitalism in Britain was at its most brutal, there was at least the idea that people needed time out to recover.  I think many people would welcome both temporal and physical space to find ‘mental and physical relief from the relentless demands’ that they face in current society.

The reasons for the disappearance of convalescence as an acceptable component of the sick role are multiple.  In part, it is to do with the reconfiguration of urban space and the introduction of antibiotics: the former seeing the crowded conditions through which Tuberculosis (TB) spread were gone and the latter allowed for speedier cure of the acute phase of an illness.  One further explanation as to why the right to convalesce is denied in modern capitalism can be found in how neoliberalist ideologies shape subjectivity by turning up the work ethic beyond eleven.

The neoliberal subject is one who is just a constant energy, a will to power that overcomes any limitations and obstructions in order to realise the ultimate neoliberal accolade of becoming the successful entrepreneur.  The frail and fragile human body bounded by pre-social needs to sleep, eat and just generally function as a biological entity is wished away. All that a social agent requires is the right attitude.

That subjectivity is exemplified glorified and circulated in the social media spheres of Instagram and TikTok (#my5to9). The viewer is invited to rise at 5 am and engage in a variable list of activities (journaling, meditating, hitting the gym and so on) in order to win the day. Sleep, let alone taking time out to convalesce after illness, is transmuted into a sign of weakness, a lack of ambition or hunger for success. This neoliberal domination of the body by the mind is a revisiting of Cartesian dualism, as Moore and Robinson have argued, where the mind rules the body. It is also a form of alienation where the human subject becomes estranged from their physical self and its frailties.

The chances for a return to convalescence and the opportunity to take time out for rest and recuperation seem slim.  But it is than needed.  The contact acceleration of society brings many changes but it is built on stretching human beings beyond their limits and we all need time out.