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Waiting for uncertain futures in pandemic times

Reflections from researchers at the WAIT project on the complexity of waiting in pandemic times.

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Countries around the world have been declaring a state of emergency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. People are confined and their everyday lives are being suspended. With the emergency, suspension and confinement come a complexity of forms of waiting. People are waiting for a notified disaster, for their loved ones to return safely, for the end of their quarantine, or for that little cough – an embodied reminder of the pandemic – to pass.  

Since 2017, we have explored waiting and other temporalities in the interdisciplinary research project ‘Waiting for an uncertain future: The temporalities of irregular migration’ (WAIT). In this collective blog post, we use perspectives from the literature on temporality and waiting as an approach to the ‘pandemic condition’ we currently live under. We approach waiting both as a social phenomenon that proliferates in times of crises, and as an analytical perspective on practices and experiences under such conditions.

Waiting in the pandemic condition

The waiting that people experience in these pandemic times includes both ‘situational’ and more ‘existential’ forms of waiting (Dwyer 2009). Situational waiting relates to the particular situation or event(s) of the pandemic: People wait for things to happen, including daily updates on the development of the pandemics and its death toll, new rules and regulations to follow in order to slow down the dissemination, and political and bureaucratic decisions about whether one is allowed to travel or even to leave one’s house. But the pandemic also propagates more prolonged and open-ended forms of waiting for an uncertain future, including whether any of one’s loved ones will die as the pandemic reaches its climax, whether one’s business or even the world economy will survive and recover, whether we are entering a more or less permanent state of exception and whether everyday life as people know it will ever be the same again. The personally experienced, and context-dependent threshold between situational and existential forms of waiting becomes increasingly entangled and hard to separate under ‘pandemic conditions’. 

Under such conditions people simultaneously carry on, feel trapped and relate to alternative notions of the future through their daily activities. Hage’s (2009b) distinction between ‘waiting for’ and ‘waiting out’ is interesting here. While people are waiting for various things, they are also called upon to go on with their lives in confinement, in terms of living with the uncertainty and being ‘patient’. Waiting out in this sense can be understood as endurance in situations of ‘stuckedness’, when ones’ lives are put on hold because of conditions one cannot control. As a state and practice of endurance, waiting out involves asserting some agency over the very fact that one has no agency by not succumbing and becoming a mere victim. For instance the self-practices of hygiene that people implement could be seen as a negotiation to evade entrapment and to avoid the ‘notified disaster’. 

The political economy and multiple tempos of waiting

Waiting in pandemic times has been importantly coded as an empty time that needs to be filled (with Netflix series). However, it has also been coded as a time for self-cultivation (learn a new language, do meditation to release stress), and as a productive time (keeping up business as usual, a time of innovation, of speeding up slow societal processes of digitalisation). ‘Waiting for’ and ‘waiting out’ can be understood here as slightly different modes of governing the self. In ‘waiting for’, it is the notion of a future reward that serves to individualise and internalise a mode of governing the self into waiting orderly. ‘Waiting out’ in contrast, invites self-control by positioning waiting as something that can be done well or badly. As normative judgments are attached to how people spend their time, a capacity to stick it out and ‘get stuck well’ becomes a marker of good citizenship (Hage 2009). Such normative judgements are rife in these times, as seen from the proliferation of call outs in social and mainstream media of people who do not ‘wait well’ in the sense that, in pursuing their individual pleasure, they violate the measures of social distancing recommended or enforced by authorities.   

This is also a reminder of how capitalism structures time and waiting in contemporary societies. As Hage (2009a: 3) notes, ‘[t]here is a political economy of waiting, not least because “time is money” and waiting can be a waste of time’. One of the great worries expressed these days concerns precisely the economic consequences of putting a whole society ‘on wait’. What will happen to industries and businesses if their activities are suspended? How long can they wait to resume normal activities before the economic crisis is a fact? ‘Waiting well’ has thus also been associated with taking responsibility as a consumer for keeping small and local businesses alive by continuing to spend money during the time of confinement. 

Related to this, waiting under pandemic conditions brings out the complex relationship between the slowness often associated with waiting, and acceleration of tempo. While the pandemic has hit the financial market, and economic processes decelerate, the pace and mobility of people, value and goods under globalized capitalism enables SARS-CoV-2 to spread across the globe in a rapid and uncontrollable process. This interplay between multiple tempos also produces and shapes situations of waiting when the pandemic has become a fact. The slowness of days passed under confinement is juxtaposed to the acceleration of confirmed cases of illness and urgent measures taken to combat it. The interplay between multiple tempos also creates time lags and experiences of being out of sync, depending among other things on peoples geographic and social positioning, as well as more idiosyncratic differences. While many now experience a quiet before the storm, others are already in the storm, struggling to keep up with the uncontrolled accelerated pace of change and (health and economic) crisis caused by the pandemic, while others again are envisaging the exit from and the after of the pandemic condition.   

Waiting for an uncertain future

An interesting aspect of waiting under current pandemic conditions is the proliferation of temporariness and a related unpredictability regarding waiting’s end and what the future after the pandemic will be like. For many people and institutions, the first responses to the pandemic – at the time it was still an epidemic – was postponement of regular and planned activities. In general, people avoided cancelling, and chose to postpone events that were planned for the near future. How long these postponements were, teaches us something about how people evaluated how long the everyday would be put on hold while we were waiting out the crisis. Postponing rather than cancelling is a way of approaching the crisis which holds in place the eventual return to a ‘normal’ state of affairs: After the pandemic, people will still go to work (for those who have a job), go on vacations (for those who can afford it), and dance tango (for those of us who do). The alternative of cancelling opens for a more radical uncertainty about the future, both in terms of when and if the world will ever be what it was. As governments suspend normal laws, close and produce new state borders, and media reports of unemployment rates rising to the levels of a dark past (in Europe: the 1930s) or an exceptional present (‘not seen before’), the question arises if one is waiting for normalisation or for an unknown future. The pandemic illuminates how feelings such as anxiety, fear, resignation, hope and love, entangle in situations of waiting - an emotional dimension of waiting that is powerfully present in literature, be it in Samuel Beckett's ‘Waiting for Godot’, Lena Andersson’s ‘Egenmäktigt förfarande’ or in Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry. 

Waiting and inequality.

Yet, many people have long inhabited a present defined through its relation to an uncertain and suspended future. As Vigh (2008) has observed, for many people living in conditions of poverty, conflict or climate-change that threatens their livelihoods, waiting is a context of their lives, rather than an episodic rupture or delimited ‘temporal region’ (Auyero 2011) in an otherwise steady ongoing life. There is a need to problematise the gendered, sexual, classed, racialised norms that are, often implicitly, found in the framing of the ‘pandemic condition’. One example is the call for social distancing and home isolation that has dominated as a strategy for ‘waiting out’ the pandemic. These notions are based on ideas about the family nucleus and their ‘home’ as a ‘safe haven’ where people can weather out the storm. They ignore the fact that for many the home is anything but safe, as well as that having a home to work from, and enough space to keep the recommended physical distance, is a privilege accessible only to a minority of the world’s population. Indeed, as the pandemic spreads across the globe, it illuminates the many lines of differentiation which conditions people’s waiting. In our next blog post we reflect on how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting migrants with precarious legal status in Europe and how the pandemic adds a new layer of anxious insecurity to the ‘condition of illegality’.

References

Auyero, J. (2011) Patients of the state: An ethnographic Account of Poor People’s Waiting. Latin American Research Review 46 (1), 5-29. 

Dwyer, P.D. (2009) Worlds of waiting. In: Hage, G. (ed.) Waiting. Melbourne, Melbourne University Publishing, pp. 15-26. 

Hage, G. (ed.) (2009a) Waiting. Melbourne, Melbourne University Publishing.

Hage, G. (2009b) Waiting out the crisis: On stuckedness and governmentality. In: Hage, G. (ed.) Waiting. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, pp. 97-106.

Vigh, H. (2008) Crisis and Chronicity: Anthropological Perspectives on Continuous Conflict and Decline. Ethnos 73 (1), 5-24.