As the pandemic proceeds through numbered opening-up stages, the future is fracturing into a spectrum of divergent times-after, like the Pink Floyd album cover with one ray of blackness going into a prism and seven colors going out. First there was "we're all in this together", with a collective holding of breath and a radical leveling of public experience. Everything was shut down, everybody was home, the streets were uniformly empty and no one knew what was coming. We shared the stasis, time stopping in the moment after the gate came down or the door slammed shut or whatever metaphor you prefer for the middle of March.
Now our futures look different. Back-to-work is real for many people, retail is open, recreation is soon to follow, and it looks to me like some futures will proceed more or less as they were before, albeit punctuated by the pandemic. There's a rush hour once again, the malls are open until eight, and construction on the new LRT line is back on track, literally.
But for other people - students, teachers, performers, clergy, coaches - the future looks like an eternal virus-now. Anyone whose livelihood depends (or depended) on medium-to-large groups of people engaged in co-ordinated activities in the same physical space is grappling with the disappearance of that space, and realizing that the withdrawal from normal which began in March is going to last an indefinitely long time.
I'm struck by the extent to which I as a textbook introvert had built a life out of being part of groups of people engaged in co-ordinated activities in public space. That describes teaching and a lot of research activities, it describes church functions, it describes the volunteer work I did and the youth sports functions that took up my weekends. Now that's gone - the space has shrunk down to the size of this laptop screen and the people have lost their bodies and become two-dimensional heads in a three-inch square, sometimes with eye-catching domestic events in the tiny background. And I don't know if or when that's going to change.
I'm fortunate that my pandemic future probably does not include losing my job or going broke or deteriorating mental health. I'm resourceful by nature, and I have resources. But I think I'm going to experience (even more) cognitive dissonance between a future of crisis-driven change to just about everything I value, and the apparent business-as-usual unfolding around me. I'm guessing this will peak around September, when the cyclical rhythms of the academic schedule, which have structured my years since the turn of the century, move towards the annual return to the classroom. Except this year, the future is going to diverge.
I'm also aware that business-as-usual could be evanescent, and the arrival of a second wave of infection could flip everything back to Pandemic Time Zero. So many places have already veered off onto a dystopian timeline - Houston, Miami, the Four Corners, upstate New York, all of Brazil. I have entirely unmerited luck, to be where I am, doing what I do, whatever that will turn out to be.
Here's a slightly embarrassing pop-culture elision: in the last episode of the science-fiction TV show Angel, the band of heroes is cornered by a towering mob of demons, the odds are against them, and they don't know if they'll survive. "... in terms of a plan?", asks one. "Let's get to work", says the titular character, drawing a sword. Cut to black. So unsatisfying, as an ending. What happens next? There was a plan, there was no plan, they all die, a few survive, they vanquish the horde? In covid time, I don't think anyone has a sword or a plan, and we can't quite see where the demons are or what happens after the cut to black. What can we do? Pick up whatever we've got, and get to work.