The Phenomenology of a Global Pandemic

Aerin Lai

The global Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the fractures in society and illuminated how deadly racial, gender, class inequalities can be – not that we needed a pandemic to reveal how deep-seated and endemic these oppressive social structures are (if only people listened to sociologists more). As we emerge out of lockdown into phase two, I contemplate on the experiential aspects of the pandemic and why it is important to connect embodiment with temporality and spatiality in understanding how we make sense of ourselves in our social worlds.

The day Scotland entered lockdown, I traversed international borders on a flight so empty I woke up multiple times on the plane wondering where I was. There was no crying baby or scuttling crew along the aisle. Just the consistent humming of the plane gliding through clouds. These are ‘bits and bobs’ of our social-physical environment that we associate closely with particular spaces and emotions. The anticipation of arrival in a new place for example, accompanies travel (most of the time).

My return home was the most bizarre. I got out of the cab and was confronted by my dad, standing properly distanced from me at the door, yelling in short commands “leave your bags! Go shower! Quick! Disinfect!” this chaotic scene was the prelude to a week of heightened parental surveillance before a prompt relocation to a government funded hotel room out of my own volition. I was required to complete a two week Stay Home Notice (SHN), a state-mandated quarantine from the date of arrival into the country. For fourteen days, the Singapore government sent me periodic text messages asking me to declare my location through GPS.

The first week of my SHN was spent with my aged and at-risk parents. It was an unrelenting experience of paranoia, surveillance and exasperation. I received texts from my mom in a different part of a three-bedroom flat, asking me to “please mask up, your dad and I are old”. Every trip to the toilet had to be accompanied by frenzied disinfecting. Basically, I was the personification of a virulent Covid-19 organism and my parents’ interactions with me were guided by this understanding. In any circumstances, this would have been ludicrous and offensive. But, since I travelled from the UK, even the state was wary that I could cause a potential Covid-19 cluster. This experience culminated when my mom shrieked at me for touching a pizza slice meant for her and my dad. “YOU CAN’T TOUCH THAT THAT’S DADS AND MINE” This episode ended in tears and desperate pleading for me to “stick to the safety guidelines”.

Done with the unyielding scrutiny of my parents, I decided to relocate for the remaining seven days of my SHN to a hotel paid for by the state. This shift also meant a shift from hypervisibility in the house to complete isolation from people.  I was tucked away in a room with no recourse to fresh air, social interaction or any kind of noise from the outside. That room was a sensory vacuum. No smells, sterile, no noise nothing. The scene outside of other towering hotels and an empty pool was so still it might as well have been a printed photo stuck to the frames of my windows.

It dawned on me then the extent of our reliance on our physical surroundings in making sense of our reality. Jetlagged and isolated, the line between ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Singapore started to blur. It was then that I began to notice that time was ‘felt’, in the smells of the outside, the sounds of traffic, of people, of the colour of the sun and the sky. The feeling of exhaustion from having a full day’s work at the office with the commute marking the ‘end of the workday’. Such are experiential moments that accompany and affix social meaning to the hands or digits of the clock. In this sense, in lockdown where my days are humdrum and consistent, I felt time in an absolutely different way. On days without scheduled zoom meetings, I experience time through a different modality, one that is more reliant on physical sensations like hunger.

My experience of melancholia and depressive bouts have been different during this pandemic. I can no longer distinguish between feelings of restlessness, emptiness, general despair and ‘normal’ days since there are no markers of norms anymore. The lack of demarcation between (social) space and time also translates to difficulties in making sense of my emotions and by extension, sense of being. Prior to March, when days were properly scheduled with regular changes to the physical / social landscape around me, the ebbs and flows of general depression and anxiety were more acute and jarring in relation to ‘good’ days. I could keep track of how I was doing emotionally based on how I was coping with my daily tasks, properly giving purpose to time and space. With the lockdown and upending of normalcy as we knew it, there was no meaning to time and space. In addition, the precarity of unfunded PhD life and the paranoia of racism towards Asians in this pandemic has become palpable. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ days, what I like to call ‘being in the good, medium or bad place’, have begun bleeding into each other.

Time and space need to be seen as constituents in this embodied process of sense-making and identity-formation. Rather than abstract concepts that are studied as disparate pieces of a larger puzzle, we both make sense of time and space through our bodies, while also of our bodies and our realities through time and space. Sociology needs to grapple with bodies and bodily sensations, and the significance of bodily time and space, in its pursuit of understanding the social. Moving forward, with social distancing a preferred mode of interaction, I wonder how such embodied realities can be sociologically investigated from afar.

Aerin Lai is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Edinburgh.

Published by

Mary Holmes

Mary Holmes is Professor of Emotions and Society @ University of Edinburgh, email mary.holmes@ed.ac.uk

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