It’s been six months. Our sense of time is still broken.
By Maura Judkis,
Jose L. Soto/The Washington Post based on iStock images
“What day is it?”
That’s the question nurses would ask Abby Woolsey every day when she was being treated for covid-19 in an Independence, Mo., hospital. One day, she got the answer wrong. She doesn’t remember what number she said, but she responded with a date in March.
“No, it’s April 7th,” said the nurse.
Woolsey, 58, had emerged from a nine-day-long, medically induced coma. She had arrived to the hospital struggling to breathe, and tested positive for covid-19. Doctors intubated her to give her ailing lungs a chance to recover.
She pulled through, and woke up with no idea how long she had been asleep.
“When I got out, and the grass was green and tulips were blooming, and the world had shut down,” she says, “It was just like I was Rip Van Winkle.”
Woolsey’s case is uniquely literal, but many Americans have felt some version of becoming unstuck from time. It’s been six months since the pandemic began. Six months since our internal clocks broke and started blinking zeros.
The first week felt like a month. The last month felt like a week. The days feel like each other.
“Weekends and weekdays are the same,” said Sarah Beth Brown, a 36-year-old in Highland Park, Ill., back in March. She was trying to work from home full time while parenting a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old. Time wasn’t moving particularly fast, or slow, just . . . weird. “I don’t really know where I am in time, if that makes sense.”
Six months ago, Jay Martinez was a honeymooning passenger aboard the Norwegian Jewel when the world went into lockdown. Denied at several ports and experiencing an engine failure, the ship crossed the international date line twice.
“We had two March 12ths and we had two March 15ths,” said Martinez. “As soon as you realize that you’re in a confined situation that’s out of your control, every day feels like it’s an eternity.”
Six months ago, President Trump announced a travel ban from Europe, the stock market plummeted, actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, tested positive for covid-19, the NBA suspended its season, and, within 24 hours, much of the country had effectively shut down.
Hanks and Wilson have recovered, though nearly 190,000 Americans did not. The NBA has resumed play, though fans cannot attend games. The stock market is near where it was six months ago, though unemployment is twice as high. European travelers are no longer banned from the United States, but American travelers are banned from much of Europe.
Humanity loves a countdown, so we spent six months marking our calendars. Maybe things would be Back To Normal by Easter, then by Memorial Day, then by the end of June, then Labor Day. When the calendars proved useless, we joked about the month that never ended — how it would all be over by March 181st.
Over time, that joke stopped being funny.
“What day is it?”
That’s the question Todd Meany, a reporter for Cleveland’s Fox 8 News, would answer for his viewers in a recurring segment he devised back in April, when he realized people were losing track of time.
His gag was almost always the same: The anchors teed him up. A producer cued the goofy ’60s-game-show-style music. And then Meany walked out, pointed to a calendar, and in a deadpan voice announced (for example): “It’s Wednesday.”
In a pandemic, morning show viewers were “waking up in kind of a free-form world,” Meany told The Washington Post in April.
By May, the skit got old.
“We did it for thirty days straight and I ran out of creative ideas,” he recalled recently. They discontinued the segment — making a relic of a past time that we’re still in.
“I still have people asking me,” Meany says, “‘What day is it?’ ”
WJW FOX 8
WJW FOX 8
Cleveland news anchor Todd Meany tells viewers what day it was, sometime last spring, on the “Fox 8 Morning Show.” The segment can for about a month and then was retired.
Every day is Blursday now. Even for the people who study time.
“The running joke is, you know, we used to have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and now we just have Day, Day, Day, Day, Day,” said Dean Buonomano, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of California at Los Angeles, in May. “We’ve sort of lost our mental landmarks or temporal boundaries for days.”
When we’re in the midst of something tedious and rote, like quarantining, it feels like forever, Buonomano explained, because “Our memory focuses on, to a large extent, novel events. If you’re not doing novel things, you’re less likely to have those temporal mental landmarks.”
Six months have brought us some temporal landmarks — the nationwide marches against police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor come to mind — but it has also sent people into their own personal time zones, based on circumstances.
In March, New York endured interminable days as a hot spot while Florida carried on semi-normally; by late July, they had switched places.
When Martinez and his wife, the international-date-line hoppers, disembarked their honeymoon cruise, they returned home to Bismarck, North Dakota, where they dutifully wore masks and worked from home while the virus remained on the coasts and in the South for most of the last six months. But now that cases are ticking up in North Dakota, it feels like they’ve time-traveled back to March.
“It’s just our turn to ride out the storm,” says Martinez. “It’s hard to believe that just earlier this year we got married, you know?”
An emergency-room doctor might be constantly trying to make time slow down; a housebound patient waiting for her body to recover, or an unemployed worker waiting for the economy to recover, might be desperate to make it speed up.
“I don’t have time to digest any of this,” emergency-room physician Matthew Bai told Scientific American in May. “I go to work, and then I go to sleep.”
“Each month is just getting worse and worse,” Temika Atkins, a 28-year-old graduate student in Houston, told The Post this week. Atkins has spent the past six months searching for a job, to no avail. She’s on food stamps. Her bills have gone into collection. She has sunk into a deep depression. “I don’t see an end in sight,” she said.
“Five seconds and five hours at the same time, somehow.”
That’s how long William Becker says the FaceTime from the hospital lasted for his final conversation with his grandmother, as she lay dying of covid-19 in a Nebraska hospital in late July.
He thought she had more time. Nana, as he called her, had beaten breast and lung cancer in her 88 years. With ancestors who had lived to become centenarians, “She has a lot of longevity in her genes,” says Becker, 32.
He thought he had more time with her. He told his Nana, who was in pain but lucid, that he couldn’t wait to see her at his wedding, which had been postponed due to the virus. When he spoke to her again a few days later, she was unconscious and fading. A nurse stood respectfully to the side and held the phone up so he could look at her face and tell her he loved her. He only had a few minutes, and the knowledge that it would be their last time together was at the top of his mind.
“It’s almost this feeling of, I want to soak in every moment. But I also want to be conscious of everyone else who needs to have these moments,” says Becker. “And at the same time, like, am I maximizing what’s going on here? Am I making the most of this opportunity right now?”
He watched her funeral on Zoom, from his work laptop, in his makeshift home office.
What day of the week it was, he couldn’t recall.
Passengers on the Norwegian Jewel, a cruise that was stuck without a port at the beginning of the pandemic, wait to use the Internet to communicate with family and colleagues back home in March.
One way to mark the progress of time during this pandemic has been to look at a number that only goes in one direction: the death toll.
The long hand of that awful clock is approaching 200,000.
But without knowing how many will die, that horrifying number doesn’t tell us whether we’re closer to the pandemic’s start or its conclusion. One forecast, from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, projects that the best-case scenario is 288,381 deaths by Jan. 1, 2021. The worst-case estimate is 620,029.
The politicians have not synchronized their watches.
“I would even say the spike ends, has already ended,” President Trump said in June.
“We’re still in the first wave,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in August.
The University of Washington scientists say the “most likely scenario” will see 410,451 Americans dead by the end of 2020.
Six months: not even half-past.
Deborah Fuller is working to help restore our sense of time. It’s slow going, even though she and her colleagues are moving as fast as they can.
Fuller, a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is one of many scientists working on a “rapid” vaccine for the coronavirus. Unfortunately for us, “rapid” has a very different definition in vaccine development, where time can only be bent so much.
In movies about viral outbreaks, the hero scientists have a eureka moment and “the next day they’re producing the vaccine and giving it to people,” Fuller says. “And that’s not really how things work.”
But the covid-19 vaccine will be the fastest to ever go to market, whether it arrives this fall (“possible but very unlikely,” says the chief scientific adviser for the Trump administration’s vaccine acceleration effort, named Operation Warp Speed) or in the winter, after a year of development. Typically, a “fast” vaccine takes five years.
Some companies, like Moderna and AstraZeneca have moved into large-scale human trials, with varying levels of success (though AstraZeneca’s study was halted this week after a British patient developed an adverse reaction).
Fuller is a step behind: She has seen promising results in the dozen pigtail macaques that have received hers, and will soon move on to human trials.
“We took a little extra time to test whether or not our vaccine was very immunogenic in aged mice,” she says. “That’s a good sign for its potential to actually work in the elderly,” a critical factor that not all vaccines address, she says.
But no matter when it comes, it won’t be soon enough.
“They say, ‘Why does it take so long, you know, in this day and age?’ says Fuller. “And for me, that seems super-duper fast.”
Time broke for Abby Woolsey early in the pandemic, when she spent nine days in a coma.
One way or another, returning to normal time will not be a simple matter of winding clocks.
Abby Woolsey had a hard time adjusting after her nine-day coma. Her hair was so matted from lying in bed for 15 days that it took 2½ hours to comb it out. Her throat ached from the tubes. Her emotions were all over the place. “I probably have a little survivors’ guilt,” she says.
She has no memory of the days she spent on a ventilator, and remembers only one dream.
“I dreamt that I was at this party,” said Woolsey, who, pre-covid-19, worked for a design firm that planned high-end events. “And like, the tablecloths were black with silver glitter, and I’m like, ‘What the hell? These are awful decorations.”
A few weeks after she recovered, her company laid her off because there were no longer any events to plan.
Time has passed unevenly during the pandemic, and it will probably end the same way, says French cognitive neuroscientist Virginie van Wassenhove.
For people touched by the illness, these months “will be a major temporal landmark” in the story of their lives, says van Wassenhove.
For people who are stuck at home, feeling like social distancing is never-ending, with novelty-craved brains recording few memories from the mundane passage of time — well, when it eventually ends, those days “will be a speckle in your memory.”
But that’s tomorrow.
For now, it’s still today.