‘Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.’
When reflecting on a year of living through a pandemic, I found myself returning to Lewis Carroll’s classics, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Many of the themes that Carroll so cleverly explored – notably meaning, intelligibility, time – have been central to the experience. The books are both beautifully surreal and touchingly earnest, and by pushing absurdity to its extremes Carroll reveals important truths. That uneasy mixture of patently absurd and deadly serious has come to be an increasingly definitive feature of the world we presently inhabit.
Alice’s adventures commence with her going down the rabbit-hole, a process many of us could relate to in different ways. ‘Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end!’. While falling Alice wonders whether cats eat bats, if falling in 2020 she may have extended that question to humans. That strange feeling sensation Alice felt, slowly falling while having ample time to ponder what was happening as she descended further, echoes the odd manner in which time has passed during the pandemic. In the first quarter of 2020, everything seemed to speed up: as COVID-19 emerged in China, spread to Asia, then jumped to Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. Alarming reports from China and subsequently Italy, combined with the exponential nature of the virus and the vagaries of modelling in the face of uncertainty, to create a sharp and immediate sense of peril. Yet after starting from roughly similar starting points, there has been remarkable divergence in the way different countries and regions have experienced COVID. For some, that sense of crisis never abated, for others it has come in ebbs and flows, and for many, it has been felt at a strange distance – simultaneously present through daily changes in life, while its immediate effects have remained at bay. For those fortunate enough to be at one or two removes from the harsh realities of the pandemic, life has existed in a strange type of limbo, moving on while much remains paused. As the Hatter sighed, ‘it’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles.’
The longer the pandemic has continued for, the more damage is wrought. Most fundamentally, this involves the loss of life, with the global death toll now steadily marching past 2 million people. ‘The pool of tears’ is the title of the second chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and this image aptly conveys the loss, the trauma and the pain that will remain after the pandemic has passed. It remains to be seen whether we are swept away like Alice was in her tears, or if – to use Carroll’s words – ‘echoes fade and memories die’ from our collective consciousness like the Spanish Flu did a century ago.
Throughout her adventures, Alice constantly encounters characters and situations she does not expect or fully understand, often leaving her confounded and confused. Faced with things that stretch beyond her imagination, she concludes, ‘There’s no use trying … one can’t believe impossible things’, to which the White Queen immediately retorts, ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice.’ The pandemic has given us all unwanted but valuable practice with impossible thinking, as we have found ourselves dealing with reality going beyond the bounds of what we had previously considered likely or possible. So many things people have unthinkingly taken for granted – open borders, freedom of movement, easy access to goods to name a few – have been challenged by restrictions, lockdowns and broken supply chains. There are important clues there for what the future may hold, hints at how quickly things can change, and not necessarily for the better. As the Queen suggests, we all need more practice at impossible thinking, as reality is more malleable, and conditions more changeable, than we tend to believe.
As the virus passes, the economic, societal and cultural costs of the pandemic will become more fully apparent. Industries up-ended, businesses destroyed, careers ruined, plans foiled, hopes dashed. This reveals that one of the great challenges is that for many of us, COVID has taken our work, prevented us from doing what we enjoy, stopped us from our pursuits and our passions. For some, this creates basic and difficult questions about meaning, as the things we have devoted so much time and energy and love to may now be rendered void or lost. This in turn, further shakes our sense of time. It is not just the present that we experience differently, it can lead to questioning and reinterpreting the past, with earlier decisions now looking radically different. It also can paint the future in a different light, with plans stalled and uncertainty over what comes next. As past, present and future are reshaped, and the stories we told about ourselves start to unravel, we are left pondering fundamental questions about meaning and purpose. As Alice asked, ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’ Indeed, this always has been the great puzzle, but the pandemic has brought it into sharper relief, while making the pieces appear more difficult to place together.
Watching many of the political and societal reactions to the pandemic, it is easy to be reminded of the frustration and exasperation that Alice felt when dealing with the Hatter and his mad tea-party. One of the most confounding aspects of the whole experience has been the inability of many people to accept even the most basic of limitations on what they are able to do. This point is separate from thinking about the different restrictions imposed by governments, and whether they have been effective or wise. Rather, it is about our willingness to think about our place in the world, what it might owe us, and what we might owe to it. Returning to Alice, after being caught up in a confused race where the rules and point were never established, the Dodo bird determines, ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes’. The flawed logic of the Dodo is one that has been revealed during the pandemic: we do not all get prizes, we do not all get what we want. It is hardly an accident that this conclusion was reached by the Dodo, a bird now extinct. What has been both remarkable and depressing has been how unwilling many people have been to accept even small limitations on their freedom of action. ‘It is August, so we have our summer holidays.’ ‘It is Christmas, so we must travel to see our families.’ No, not everybody wins. No, not all must have prizes.
The pandemic is a disaster that is one of our making, the way it has it has developed is a reflection of the choices that have been made: individually, collectively, and by those charged with running and administering our societies. The result is that our experience of COVID-19 somehow ends up fitting with the inverted order proposed by the Queen of Hearts at Alice’s trial: ‘sentence first – verdict afterwards.’ First, the sentence of facing and dealing with COVID-19, then slowly the verdict over how it was handled. In this regard, it is already evident that the pandemic has laid bare many of the fragilities and shortcomings of our societies: the bad actors, the faulty institutions, the massive inequalities, the lazy assumptions, the weak ideas. Alice’s retort may end up being equally fitting: ‘you’re nothing but a pack of cards!’ In this sense, the pandemic has been a great clarifying moment, for better and for worse. Not only has it revealed the many problems with the way the world is stuck together, fortunately it also put into the spotlight those with big hearts and moral courage, the functioning institutions, the desire for justice that still burns, the norms that work, and the values that endure. The good and bad, it is all there to see.
If we care to look and reflect, there is much we can learn from this experience, as Alice did from hers. The verdict will become clearer as we slowly emerge from all of this. Yet we are not there yet. Despite the remarkable progress with vaccines – a brilliant and inspired case of impossible thinking – we are still a long way off escaping from this looking-glass world of the pandemic. As we venture through this difficult period, perhaps the best we can do is heed the advice of the Knight, who tells Alice: ‘The great art of riding … is to keep your balance properly’, before he promptly falls off his horse. Balance and plenty of practice. This sounds like good advice for the coming years, just as long as we don’t fall off.