To dryly summarise coronavirus in the most detached of detached academic language, the initial rise of the pandemic could be understood as a holistic shock event. Now, this cold use of abstract terminology obviously skirts above the reality experienced by billions of humans across the globe. Every nation, to varying degrees, has been impacted by the virus and all have been required to act through various measures and as a result, lives have been upended, jobs have been lost, economies plunged into recession and families torn asunder by distance, loss and grief. Therefore, to use academic terminology as a means of understanding Covid-19 on the surface would appear to be missguided and a crass simplification of an emotionally entwined and still emerging phenomenon. However, that being said, the use of academic rationale is not entirely misplaced. It can be used in conjunction with the human stories and elements of this disease, in order to provide new insights and points of view whilst still being grounded in a recognisable reality.
As an element of the emergence Covid-infused reality we experience today, many terms and phrases, which twelve months ago we wouldn’t have recognised, have seamlessly slid into our lexicon — Covid, social distancing, herd immunity, Zoom and what not. Some other established words, phrases and idioms have also become a part of our everyday, with one of these being resilience. According to Google trends, in the U.K there is a loose correlation with the searched popularity of resilience and the state of lockdown measures, with peaks in late April and October as well as in mid-January 2021, alongside a trough during the summer months. This coupled with the fact that resilience has never been so popular on Google, is a demonstration of the concept of resilience entering our everyday lives. Now, resilience can apply to the individual (i.e. you can be resilient), but it also applies to families, businesses, government structures and even cities, and it is from the ever expanding body of resilience studies research where I have infused the term holistic shock event.
Within the academic research on resilience two concepts are universally used and implemented; shocks and stressors. According to the Resilient Cities Network (RCN), shocks are sudden, intense events that threaten a community, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks, whilst stressors are phenomena which weaken the fabric of a community over time, such as recurrent flooding, high unemployment, limited social safety nets, and inequitable public transportation systems — you can also tack pandemic onto the end of these examples.
The coronavirus pandemic does differ from the examples provided by the RCN, for as a shock it has proven to affect every facet of our lives. A shock like a flood doesn’t implicitly affect every individual, only those impacted by it, either directly — having your home placed underwater — or indirectly — providing shelter to those evacuating the disaster zone for instance — have to face the emergent reality brought about vis-a-vis the shock. Those who are unaffected can watch the news coverage or read the anecdotal experiences of those caught up in the disaster, but their lives will more or less continue as normal. Obviously, Covid-19 upended everything because, as a condition of fighting the spread of the disease, we had to forego the inherent human trait of social interaction. The requirements of such actions fundamentally altered the functionality of practically everything, public transport, energy provision, the use of public space and obviously healthcare have all been transformed as a result of this virus. Hence why the rise of Covid-19 can be understood as a holistic shock event.
However, overtime the shock of Covid-19 has morphed into a stressor and the measures brought in to blunt the spread have become the so-called new normal. For the vast majority of us, we wear masks in supermarkets, we socially distance, we wash our hands, talk to friends and family on Zoom and we stay at home to protect ourselves and others; some even take up running, with life continuing on. The adverse effects of lockdown are overt but we plow on, living within and amongst pandemic infused stressors. Even last week my key worker neighbour referred to her essential, potentially lifesaving work merely as something which pays the bills; further illustrating how quotidian lockdown measures have become.
Like any other stressor, for those indirectly experiencing it, the pandemic is presented as an external reality, which is mediated through various forms of media, rather than something we directly engage with in the public sphere. The resultant coverage of any stressor becomes infused with spectacle. This is evidenced with the coverage of daily updates of cases, hospitalisations and death tolls on the news, governmental coronavirus updates, the valorisation of the brilliant Captain Sir Tom Moore and especially the roll out of an so far successful vaccination campaign; Matt Hancock’s tears and all. The most obvious example of this was the utter shit-show that was Domonic Cummings so called press conference, complete with the 45 minute delay building up perverse hype and anticipation leading to a presentation of an insulting fiction, leading the twitterati to bemoan the ridiculousness of it all. It was a spectacle for the ages, and a defining moment in the pandemic narrative.
Guy Debord, the seminal Situationist philosopher and author of The Society of the Spectacle wrote that “when the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings — figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior”. The effects of lockdown induced isolation have created a detached, potemkine reality which is mirrored in how we engage with the virus on a daily basis. The majority of us therefore, will experience the effects of coronavirus through articles, news bulletins and journalistic dispatches — i.e. representations of reality, rather than the actuality of the virus, to which we turn our attention, but do not experience first hand. The virus is externalised and othered.
This is why if and when the effects of the virus are experienced first hand, the impact of them is significant. Obviously to be infected or to have a loved one test positive is one thing and must be in some way harrowing, but to even be just confronted with the base actuality of the virus is extremely impactful. The other night an ambulance appeared outside the house opposite my own, at the door of a young couple, its presence announced by a flashing blue light distorted through drawn curtains. They are young and seemingly healthy. My only interaction with the household was when my girlfriend delivered a parcel to them last year, she said they seemed nice, but I have never spoken to them. Yet, from my living room window, seeing the ambulance parked outside in the falling snow as the paramedics entered into the house brought on a sense of melancholy and a concerned hope that they would be ok. Even if this specific anecdotal example wasn’t covid-related, it is still imbued with the symbols of the virus and thus reinforces it.
The next morning, I realised that it is these glancing interactions with the virus which fall beyond the spectacle and directly into our lives, which personally drive me forward and strengthen my resolve to do what I can in order to hasten the eradication of this pathogen. The shocks wrought by Covid-19 have indelibly altered social reality and, the stressors feel as if the lid has been left on the melting pot of contemporary life, but it is through the direct experiences of the virus and its resultant effects, not the mediated reams of information and daily death tolls, tragic as they are, that the seriousness and in some ways abject melancholy of life under Covid are truly driven home.
By Will Brown
Doctoral Researcher at Loughborough University