Time in the time of coronavirus: Where did 2020 go?

The pandemic time warp we are now experiencing is something many traumatised populations have long suffered from.

Migrants rest at "La Roca," or The Rock shelter in Nogales, Sonora state, Mexico, near the border fence that separates Mexico from the US [File: AP/Moises Castillo]

In March, I ended up stuck in the southern Mexican coastal village of Zipolite on account of the pandemic – an abrupt change of pace from the past 17 years, which I had spent darting schizophrenically between countries. There was no official lockdown or curfew in Zipolite, but checkpoints were installed on either side of the village to restrict access and departures.

In a split second, then, my daily routine changed from one of being constantly on the road to one of lying in a hammock watching ants parade across my stomach and thinking of all the things I could be doing were I not lying in a hammock.

While the individual days passed excruciatingly slowly, the months flew by. The end of the year has now spontaneously arrived, and I can’t fathom how it is that I am still in Zipolite.

Indeed, for many across the globe, a coronavirus time warp has taken hold. As a New York Times article notes: “Google has registered a surge of searches for the day of the week”. The Washington Post remarks: “Every day is Blursday”.

Over at Wired magazine, Duke University cognitive neuroscientist Kevin LaBar explains that the human brain “likes novelty … It squirts dopamine every time there’s something novel that’s happening, and dopamine helps set the initiation of the timing of these events.”

Hence the warping of time perception when there is not much going on. Trauma and anxiety also alter the perception of time, as does uncertainty about the future.

In my own privileged case of quarantine lite – in which I have not had to deal with added stressors like unemployment, lack of food, or domestic discord – the time warp has featured an element of “coronastalgia”, if you will. Bizarrely, I have found myself missing the very situation that I have yet to emerge from confinement to one village.

But while my brain has apparently decided to view the present as past from some projected future vantage point, others are experiencing a “feeling of being stuck in the present”, as Felix Ringel, an anthropologist of time at Durham University, writes in the Conversation.

Ringel observes that, for many, the sensation of “stuckness” is nothing new thanks to the “acceleration of time” produced by neoliberal capitalism, which has “put humanity into crisis mode for several decades already” by disappearing welfare states and job security and generally relegating the masses to infinite precariousness.

To be sure, there was plenty of uncertainty about the future before the onset of the pandemic – and not just in terms of capitalism-driven planetary self-destruction.

Capitalism itself is traumatic for the non-elite majority of the world’s population, upon whose perpetual immiseration the whole system depends. And chronological limbo has long been the norm for many refugees from imperial wars and neoliberal destruction, not to mention climate change and related ills.

Consider the experience of Uyi, a Nigerian artist who attempted the notoriously perilous sea crossing from Libya to Europe in an overcrowded dinghy in 2016. The boat was intercepted in the Mediterranean by a migrant rescue vessel. In the new book Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry, Uyi recalls the effective suspension of time at sea: “We stayed on that boat for what felt like days. It was so horrible. You pay to die. That is how it is: you pay to die.”

Similarly, deadly economics are at play on the United States-Mexico border, where countless migrants have also perished in search of a less uncertain future. Those who successfully complete the crossing are susceptible to prolonged detention and deportation by the US government, which is the same entity responsible for rendering many migrants’ countries of origin physically and/or economically inhospitable in the first place.

The uncertainty that characterises the detention and deportation regime – particularly when both activities have resulted in migrant deaths – can produce traumatic time warps given the frequent lack of a clear timeline, or of any end in sight.

Nor is there any certainty about the future in the Gaza Strip, which the United Nations previously predicted would be unlivable by 2020. Existing under siege, regular bombardment, and other continuous forms of torment by the Israeli military, Palestinians in Gaza could be said to suffer from a variation of PTSD: permanent – rather than post-traumatic stress disorder.

All of this with the help, of course, of massive aid to Israel from the headquarters of global capitalism – the US – and to the great benefit of the arms industry.

If time flies when you are having fun, then, it can all but stop when you are not. When you are in the midst of a pandemic, it seems, it can simultaneously drag, fly, and cease to exist at all. And for Palestinians and other already traumatised populations now hit – often disproportionately – by the virus, the time warp is presumably even more warped.

Predictably, capitalism has undertaken to fix the pandemic by, you know, tending to the rich countries and leaving the poor ones lethally stuck. As the coronavirus clock stops and starts and time ticks contortedly by, it is as good a time as ever to stop and think.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.