What story is being told by Covid-19? Leo Cookman considers how narrative theory can help us makes sense of the pandemic and how the political battle to determine the story of Covid must be waged.
Since the advent of rolling news, stories are constantly updated – even when there is nothing to update. This creates the need to contextualise as the story develops and, in an age where tastes and even beliefs are dictated by algorithms and news feeds, Narrative – the subjective interpretation of events – offers a convenient method of sorting through the disparate events of online existence and media bombardment. Unlike in fiction, where Narrative is often utilised to serve an emotional or affective purpose, Narratives in daily life often tend to be more utilitarian. Narratives are structure which can be imposed to help create direction and purpose. In that respect, we all tell ourselves a story to some degree, even if it is just about how our work day will go or how we remember times gone by. But just like any essential structure, these narratives of daily life can be modified, rebuilt or even collapse entirely. In the current Coronavirus pandemic,, everyday life has perhaps never seemed more ‘Narrative-less’. Rest assured though, there are definitely stories being told here.
So what is the story? Well that depends who you ask. The Coronavirus Pandemic is either an example of systemic failure, an excuse for isolationist policies, a soothing balm for Mother Earth or it’s all 5G’s fault. It is strange that so many varied conclusions can arise – and be disseminated – from the same set of facts but one’s perspective is often more integral to the response to events than the event itself. The interesting part is the inherently progressive element of Narrative i.e. Time. Day to day we exist inside multiple layers of Narratives that apply a necessary, structure to our lives; our personal life is one Narrative, this sits alongside the Narrative of our working life, which is part of our family’s story, which is the story of a society, etc. But during lockdown, our lives have lost this structure, short of the day and night cycle. Increasingly people couldn’t tell you what day of the week it is without checking. Time is a relative concept and we have less and less to relate it to. Without Narrative structures to ground us, the concept has lost a lot of its meaning.
If this were a book or a movie that we were living in, this would be the ‘middle’ of the story, where all sorts of elements are in flux and uncertainty. But this status will, naturally, change. As is often repeated in maudlin montage videos and by overly-sincere Instagram influencers, ‘this will all be over one day’. This does raise the question of what the final Narrative of this global event will be. And there will be one. It remains to be seen whose politics this story will ultimately serve, but there is work to be done if we are to have any hope of wresting this narrative from the right-wing stakeholders in our government and its media.
The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ – most effectively understood by Walter Benjamin – raises the question of who the victor is when the enemy is a virus? There is no winning nation in this (though there are definitely already some losers) so what will the Narrative of Covid19 be when this is finished? As has been pointed out already, Governments in wealthier nations like the US, the UK, Australia, France, Germany and so on, have already begun plotting the Narrative going forward. They have written nurses and key workers into ‘Heroes’ making ‘Sacrifices’ where once they were dismissively referred to merely as ‘workers’, underpaid and unappreciated. Those same individuals who criticised junior doctors’ bids for better conditions in 2015 and 2016 now the same individuals re-writing the NHS heroes into their new story.
Others have also pointed out that the vast, and necessary, expenditure by Boris Johnson’s government may become another excuse for decades more austerity. The terminology being used and where politicians and journalists focus their attention will be deciding factors now about who the winners and losers of this virus will be. The story of Covid19 won’t be set in stone for a long time yet but the world is going to look very different this time next year. The best method people have for sorting through the rubble of what life was before the pandemic is through Narrative. If our collective futures depend on exactly what the Narrative of 2020 will be, then, rather than have it dictated to us by those of dubious moral authority, those of us who do care about the health and welfare of others had best make sure we get our stories straight.
Leo Cookman is a musician, poet and writer. His new book Time’s Lie: The Narrativisation of Life is just out this month with Zero Books. His poetry can be found in The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and other places.