Big moments in history usually set the world in motion – but the pandemic has frozen it in place

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP

History usually means acceleration.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” says Lenin.

Revolution, war, disaster – on such occasions, time quickens, so that the extraordinary becomes commonplace.

Covid’s not like that – at least not in any simple way.

In Melbourne, we’ve endured the world’s longest lockdown: a unique experience by anybody’s reckoning.

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But who knew that making history could feel so dull?

In that respect, the pandemic’s very different from other great turning points.

Think of how the outbreak of the first world war set the 20th century in motion – and then how the outbreak of Covid froze the 21st in place.

The prolonged lockdowns induce a weird languor. The weeks all blend into one. You walk through treacle, brain-fogged by the simplest tasks, with your well-intentioned plans for exercise and self-improvement giving way to sweat pants and indolence.

“Nothing happens,” as Estragon complains in Waiting for Godot. “Nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”

The fight against the virus depends less on us doing anything (other than getting vaccinated) and more on us doing nothing. Rather than bringing us together to face a common challenge, it keeps us apart, with each household bunkering down behind its own sealed door.

It’s an experience encapsulated in the changing connotations of “zoom”. A term that once invoked speed now signifies immobility, as the morning commute gives way to permanent onscreen meetings.

The Italian futurist Marinetti, glorying in the velocity of modernity, declared slowness “naturally foul”. As he recognised, one can measure conventional progress entirely by tempo: the pace of assembly lines, the speeds of jet airlines, the processing rates of CPUs.

When, in the 1890s, the novelist Paul Adam marvelled at “the cult of speed”, he was discussing that new-fangled device known as a bicycle. Today we take for granted that our phones work their digital magic in microseconds. That’s why our current situation discombobulates us so. After a century or more of going faster and faster and faster, we’ve come, unexpectedly, to a standstill – and we’re frozen with the shock of it.

In other circumstances, you could imagine experiencing the Covid torpor as a much-needed break, a chance to relax. In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Enjolras explains utopia in precisely those terms.

“There will be no more events,” he says. “We shall be happy.”

Walter Benjamin, a very different kind of revolutionary, gestures at the same idea when he describes humanity as desperately pulling on the emergency brake as history’s locomotive chugs toward catastrophe.

But that’s not what Covid represents.

We’re not in this wretched situation because we decided to slow down. We’re in it because we didn’t.

Think of the pandemic as the gears seizing in an overheated machine driven too fast for too long.

Related: An old ethical dilemma has become Australia’s grim reality – and this can’t be spun | Peter Lewis

In December, the Lancet attributed Covid to “human activity that has led to environmental degradation”. The cities grow, faster and faster, the forests shrink, and the factory farms of the new metropolises bring new pathogens into contact with a dangerously susceptible population. It’s a familiar pattern.

Jean Chesneaux describes ecological crises as arising from the imposition of “our wound-up present on the slow time of nature”, as we exhaust and consume a world that can’t keep our breakneck pace.

The rise in zoonotic diseases is one manifestation of that imposition – but not the only one. The same Lancet article described, for instance, Covid and climate change as converging crises, different facets of the same emergency.

Hence the peculiar psychology of this very peculiar moment.

We might be less busy but nobody feels calm. The sensation’s more akin to tropical languor, the unbearable stillness that precedes a storm. It’s a feeling we must shake, lest exhaustion becomes apathy. We’ve paused but history hasn’t – and the worst is still to come.

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