The pandemic has made certain realities more apparent to us all
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been waiting on different fronts. Initially, we were waiting for the pandemic to be over. Once we realized it was not going to cease anytime soon, we waited for the government initiatives so that we could return to a somewhat normal life.
Some of us have been waiting for the possibility of receiving vaccine shots. Students and parents are waiting for educational institutions to re-open; those stuck in the same class or semester are waiting to get over the exams, many are awaiting their first jobs, and so on.
In a way, our lives are stuck, and we are waiting to complete different phases of our lives. However, it is not that we have been in limbo for only the past one and a half years; instead, we always face such phases -- the pandemic has just made this all apparent before us.
Upon reflection over our life, it becomes obvious that we live a temporal life. We wait, anticipate, and try to control the future; thus, many temporal frames structure and regulate our lives. Diverse forms of action and thought are performed or avoided during specific temporal conjunctions that are temporary or, in some cases, become more permanent conditions of life.
French philosopher Henri Bergson in the book Matter and Memory (1896), distinguished between the time in a positivist sense and the time in our experience -- as human perception is saturated with memories. Therefore, when we do not have any cultural repertoire to deal with a particular situation, we usually passively wait the time out, for instance: The way sometimes we let it be with God’s judgment when we are unable to resist or react to some conditions that we long for to go away.
During our life course, we follow certain behaviours -- some of which have no scientific explanations. For instance: Family members ask pregnant mothers to gulp whole eggs so that the child might have large, beautiful eyes in the future. Before any exam, some people do not prefer to eat eggs or potatoes, believing it might lead to bad results.
Understanding how people organize time and regulate everyday lives anticipating futures allow us to scrutinize why people in radically similar conditions may still experience and deal with life situations differently -- reflecting plural ways of being. At this premise, I want to direct attention towards the causes that create a continuous feeling of being stuck in limbo and what opportunities new agents in our life could bring.
The capitalistic worldview has situated our lives in a continuous and expansive cycle. We must work to produce more, achieve more -- there is no going back. Though we have a target to succeed, it gets continuously fixed with renewed milestones. Therefore, we always hear about economic growth, but our needs always outrun the growth, forcing us to expand constantly.
Moreover, globalization of production and the supply chains of the global market dominate our order of time -- they collectively organize and discipline millions of lives into regimented routines. For instance: To regularly replenish the supermarket’s shelves -- production and distribution at a global scale need to be maintained. Similarly, the global supply chain of apparel products dictated the ways garment industries in Dhaka operated during the early pandemic days.
Our temporal lives are altered with the introduction of new agents. For instance, the introduction of microfinance has provided the poor with a possibility to restore social lives. Primarily, the introduction of structural adjustment and the green revolution led to the polarization of lands in rural areas, making it dicult for people to live in the existing rhythm.
With lesser income, people needed to take out a loan with a high-interest rate from people they knew, and they could adjust the loan by selling advance labour, or when they harvested crops from their land yearly or in six months. On this premise, the availability of microfinance provided a way out from the local loan sharks. However, the temporal rhythm of microfinance became a new disciplinary technology as borrowers needed to generate income and repay loans weekly.
In this regard, I can mention another example: Since the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, garment factories of Bangladesh have been subjected to factory compliance guidelines, and consequently, auditing of factories has become a big deal. This new agent in the life of factory workers created a new rhythm centring auditing. With measured and limited overtime, workers somehow must meet individual production targets because only the timely shipment of products translates to the stability of their jobs and income.
Moreover, how people in different countries and demographics are waiting for the Covid-19 vaccine explains how our life is structured in this world. It makes visible the dividing line between the rich and the poor and on other social fronts. Hence, one may argue, capitalist time-maps produce localized tensions and negotiations.
Nonetheless, when we are stuck, we do not leave everything in the hands of others. For example, during the pandemic, we have experimented with alternative systems of resource distribution: Free supply of essential foods to the poorer groups through volunteers, distribution channels of agricultural products from the farmers to the consumers devoid of any middlemen, free medical consultation with doctors via digital mediums, and so on.
Recognizing how differently we as social beings experience time and prepare ourselves for different temporal stages of our lives, we could see the different life-worlds and social situations that may appear unreasonable to the naked eye.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.