The time, the project, and the covid-19 – PART I

When I submitted INFRATIME to the Marie Skłodowska Curie Individual Fellowship call in September 2019, the SARS-COV-2 was unknown to humans, although perhaps about to make the first jump into our species. I did not consider at all to include a pandemic in the risk section of the proposal template: should I have done that with extraordinary farsightedness, I would have labeled anyway the risk as “extremely unlikely” and that excess of care would have probably raised more than one eyebrow among the evaluators and been dismissed as a weird thought experiment.

Five months after the submission, when I clicked on the Research Executive Agency email notification with a trembling wrist, the CoViD-19 just reached the global news as World Health Organization declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” on January 30 2020, upgraded to pandemic six weeks later on March 11. The joy and gratitude for having got the fellowship came with a sense of urgency to start my research and the hurry to fit the agenda of the world into the timeline of my project. Obviously, it has been the other way around since the outbreak. INFRATIME inevitably struggles with the temporal breakdowns produced by Covid-19, like everything. So I started reflecting upon how the pandemic is shaping the focus of the project as well as its management and implementation, particularly respect the time aspects of its urban, socio-technical, and climatic implication. The following words represent then a rough ensemble of notes that I feel relevant for the project and connected, although I am not able to say yet what the thread is.

Awakened by urbanization and deforestation, spilled over into human bodies and circulating through encounters and mobility infrastructures, CoViD-19 created a regime of acceleration and delay that is especially disrupting and reshaping social and urban life, while the pandemic driven response effects on climate change seem negligible. As the first, the second, and the third wave of infections impose a rhythm hardly manageable by most national governments – at least until the vaccine reaches most of the population – cities and their mobility infrastructures show their fragility, while the digital platforms consolidate their hegemony.

Since its zoonosis, the SARS-COV-2 moves with a pace that displaces the modern temporality. Passing from animal to human guests and from human to human, the virus set the time through its random RNA recombinations. Not much Chronos (the chronological and measurable time) but Kairos, the time of the opportunity, when the virus awakens and the last recombinations match an affordable body in a convenient situation. Such convenience is given by the intrusion of humans in wild habitats for extraction purposes, and then by global mobility networks exposing large flows of people simultaneously, thus increasing the reproduction rate of the infection. Inspired by Kairos, the virus finds its tempo beat by beat and thrives as a combination of subsequent attachments in a more than human entanglement of risky exchanges. Time is key again: the time of incubation, the delay that takes from the actual infection to the appearance of symptoms and the presence of many asymptomatic subjects, which allow Covid-19 to move unnoticed for days or even weeks; the time of circulation, the speed for an unaware guest to travel long distances and spread around the world; the time of organizing and calculating, the urgency to take action and the time to evaluate, to understand, respond, contain, mitigate, keep under control a novel infection, as well as to produce, approve, and distribute a cure or a vaccine. The time of lived experience and affectivity, the missed encounters, the disruption of the everyday practices, the time when all this suffering will be luckily over.

The different time regimes collapsed into two specific and complementary forms of response related to the pandemic, as an effort to frame time with space: “lockdown” and “tracking”. The Wuhan approach to lockdown acted as a model to many European countries at the pandemic stage of the outbreak, a model to be different from as well as a model to identify to, and the mechanism of image construction of national response through differentiation and identification certainly requires further analysis: we observed a range of different solutions at work, resulting as a mix of scientific statements, management cultures of the single governments, which also reveals the way the everyday life and the population are configured, the mode of organizing what was previously known as normality. Rather than doing what they knew best, it seems that national governments did just what they were used to and continued to do, applying a spatial epistemology of emergency with the annex failure and success. Since the first outbreak in Wuhan reached the news, the concept of “quarantine” had a new revival, now applied as confinement to all the people as potential carriers of the virus: not only to the infected but also to the supposed healthy ones, without the presumption of innocence. The revised quarantine does not take place with a specific location of containment (the “lazzaretto”), but it is a quarantine applied to regions and networks, in Mol and Law’s terms, through a joint discipline of spaces and population. Economic activities and commuting are more or less suspended, sanitary corridors created, new hospitals built. In the meantime, while people are invited to stay home and socially distant, digital data overflew around the globe, offering vicarious services for education, leisure, workplace. Data were coupled with goods, as most of the shops were closed and the supermarkets had long waiting lines, online shopping and home delivery became a formula adopted by many, logistics never stopped. The visible tension between the value of health and the economic value and more in general the freedom of movement has been embedded into and enabled by digital technologies. Adopted in many countries for enforcing the quarantine, testing subjects, and tracking contacts, such solutions seems still experimental also raising concerns in terms of effectiveness as well as privacy, surveillance, and civil liberties, as happening for example in Singapore.

To conclude this first sketch of ideas, I think that there are some points of attention to be developed further within INFRATIME:

– after one year since the official outbreak, despite the link between environmental exploitation and the CoViD-19 (at least in term of the spillover of the new virus, and perhaps also in relation to air pollution) the pandemic and climate change continue to be treated by governments as two distinct regimes (except perhaps New Zealand);

– the response is giving so far priority to spatially enforced measures while the virus works and thrives as a kairotic temporal apparatus, taking advantage of the intervals and the glitches of modern chronological time;

– urban areas represent a crucial battleground, and contemporary cities increasingly assume the shape of infrastructural entanglements: the more connected, the more fragile they are. Infrastructures work on time but in the case of the CoViD-19 crisis, they are mostly managed with through an epistemology of space and population;

– an exception to the above refers to corporate digital platforms. They are acting “kairotically” like the virus, taking the opportunity to consolidate their hegemony over, so to say, the material infrastructures, and establishing a new one in education and health (i.e. distance learning and tracking). With the digital platform exploitation progressing, it would be less and less clear if it is the technology that makes society durable or if the society itself is (digital) technology made durable.

I will leave such reflections to rest in my mind while drafting the second part, involving the management and practical aspects of the pandemic for the implementation of INFRATIME.