Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Life, health, death – Pandemics, Social Sciences and Inequality of Time
Claudio Pinheiro, Professor of Asian and African History, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
Vinicius Kauê Ferreira, Post-doctoral Researcher, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
At this point in time, we are all aware of the severe transformations brought by the Covid-19 pandemic to social life at large. One very dramatic dimension concerns how people have been experiencing the passage of time, particularly our general capacity to project plans, and to foresee the future. Medical, economic and social forecasts shared space with spiritual prophecies, both, spreading as fast as contagion and both trying to make sense of what’s forthcoming. What is going to happen?
We have also seen how accumulated privileges (of class, gender, race, etc) resonated with people’s capacity to relate to the future – i.e. to plan, to project, to predict, to foresee – and to accumulate time. Finally, the pandemic has also been affecting the institutional governance of time – i.e. how time is managed by individuals, by large institutional bodies or by governments. Very clearly, the future is in dispute.
Some European countries set forecasting commissions to anticipate likely impacts of the economic crisis provoked by the pandemic, but also viable strategies of recovery and resilience. In the face of dystopian scenarios, governments accelerated the approval of bills and measures intended to “save time”, aiming at mitigating financial depression repeatedly announced as a “matter of time”. The general opinion has been that in Africa, Asia and Latin America “time is running out”. The idea of moving back to the past has become reality in the newspapers that announce a backwards turn in terms of wealth concentration, unemployment, and global poverty. In many African and Asian countries, post-pandemic economic recession might “result in poverty levels similar to those recorded 30 years ago” .
In Brazil, with 40% of its economically active population in the informal sector, the “past” has been prophetically announced as the imminent future, eventually became a disturbing present. In one of the most unequal countries in the world, even time is unequally felt: when things get worse, time runs faster for underprivileged populations. It is noteworthy how harshly the economic crisis triggered in 2014 hit the poorest: while the medium income of Brazilians declined 7% during this period, the 50% poorest saw their revenues decline by 17%, whereas the 1% richest benefited from an increase of 10% . The sharp economic decline of many families came faster than the relative upward mobility from which they benefited in recent history. This situation has been evolving rapidly since 2017, a consequence of reforms of labour legislation, throwing millions into informal work conditions . This process has been accompanied by a progressive dismantling of the public health system, of the mechanisms of income distribution, and of social protection.
The harshness of this situation had different impacts on different social groups in the Global North and the Global South, providing different life experiences concerning time. While most upper- and middle-class people in many countries “spend time” in home offices (even if complaining about the curfew while piling up food or receiving deliveries at their door), the majority of informal workers are exposed to the risks of unemployment, contamination or starvation. Though most people report feeling a “suspended time” or “extended present time”, the sensation of the passage of time has been varying very dramatically according to class, race, gender and socioeconomic position.
One of the first reported cases of Covid-19 in Rio de Janeiro came on March 12th, 2020. The patients were an upper-class senior couple who travelled to Italy. The man felt slightly ill, called his doctor, and underwent tests at a private hospital. As the results took some days to come in, the couple lived a normal life enjoying local trips, meeting friends, and going out, even if the doctor advised to self-isolate. When his doctor called with the positive diagnosis, the man was having lunch at a posh restaurant with friends. He headed home and started quarantine together with his wife, following medical orders. The couple recovered. One of the first reported fatalities by Covid-19 in Rio de Janeiro was a 63 year-old woman, who died on March 17th. Four days earlier, after feeling unwell at her workplace, she went to a public hospital, where she was medicated and sent home 100 kilometres away. In the following Monday, when she arrived to her workplace her health had already deteriorated and she was sent to the same hospital in critical condition. Medical staff called her employers who assumed being diagnosed with the virus a few days before. This woman was a domestic worker at the house of the same above-mentioned couple, who did not liberate her from her work, even knowing they were contaminated and the risks involved. Seven of her relatives and twelve medical staff had to isolate, and some developed Covid-19. All first fatalities or severe cases reported in Brazil of Covid-19 show a similar profile: unskilled workers who got contaminated by their (upper- or middle-class) employers. In the first 45 days of the Covid-19 outbreak in Brazil, the federal public attorney received around 7500 denounces and more than 1300 inquiries concerning the disrespecting of labour rights related to the excess of work or with to the disrespect to sanitary norms.
Even if this is not the first-time humankind faces path-breaking situations that affect life at large, both the present scale and its consequences are exceptional. Pandemics present characteristics of a simultaneously exceptional and structural phenomenon whose some level of comprehension relies necessarily on a historically and geopolitically situated gaze. As K. Lynteris insightfully suggests, pandemics engender a different routine in social life, and a “radically different ontological order” in “modes of being” , accessed by biological and sociological temporalities. People report being kept between the feeling of vertiginous changes and the one-off being put on hold. The social production of time in the context of the pandemics might be experienced as a fracture not only in the activities of everyday life, but also in the structures of personal, social and political life.
These are also political moments when inequality and power relations are re-enacted through the lenses of urgency and uncertain futures. In countries like Brazil, the “emergency” is justifying several governmental measures, unrelated to the pandemic and its effects, but focusing on a project of dismantling structures of social protection and social diversity, which are not any more considered as public goods.
Rather than a pessimistic posture, the risk of retroceding in time should be converted in a compelling invitation to a critical sociological reflection. In sum, our role now should be that of scrutinizing how all these uncertainties trigger novel narratives and social values concerning time and temporality. Social sciences are confronted with the important task of understanding the ways in which social imaginaries about the future are put forward and legitimated. Far from a rhetorical or voyeuristic exercise, such an analytical movement would be much more fruitful if it was a grounded reflection on how contemporary future-oriented narratives – either of austerity or alternative economies – impact people’s everyday lives.
Time is not an exotic concern for the social sciences, from at least the 19th century onwards. The idea that different societies relate differently to time is not new, and reiterates a cleavage between the North and the Global South. In the 1950s and 1960s, when regions in Asia and Africa got independent, it became imperative to rewrite the past and to develop autonomous histories redeemed from colonialism. For a long time, colonial and post-colonial societies were accused of not having History and Past or historical conscience, and also incapable to conceive futures – as if they were devoid of the necessary categories to envision the becoming . Unable to possess such capacities, the future seemed to be a monotonous and repetitive succession of past failures. In ordinary terms, peripheral societies had no future, they had a destiny – which was never good or positive. This is precisely why black feminist scholars have been insisting on the idea of “conceivable futures”, in terms of “what could have been”  if prominent black women had not been obliterated from intellectual history. This is a matter of recovering a lost past in order to promise a better future.
More recently, future has regained some space within the social sciences, as in contemporary discussions on the Anthropocene or around ideas of afro-futurism. Ultimately, the main question orienting the debate of possible futures for humankind concerns the collapsing biosphere. Very often, writings on the Anthropocene exceed their role of sociological and ethnographical accounts of rapid-changing social contexts, up to the point of incorporating prophetical tones. This clearly goes beyond what Sherry Ortner  classified as a “dark” moment of the discipline, which dates back to the 80s, when she refers to our pessimist attitude regarding not only the present, but also the future in the face of sweeping neoliberal policies. Like Biblical prophets, sociologists and anthropologist have been announcing the imminent fall of heaven. While critically addressing an urgent problem concerning possible futures, social sciences became another actor in the ongoing proliferation of foretelling narratives. And the very same thing has been happening in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.
In the late 1970s, the IUAES established a “Commission on Futurology” which ame simultaneously to the “Commission on Women”, combining diversity and development as variables in anthropological forecasting that examined rapid adaptation to environmental changes. However, the problematic of time has been deeply transformed as it has progressively been approached from the viewpoint of social transformation and power relations. And it is precisely this vocation that we need to further now, and perhaps more than ever.
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