‘Containment, delay, mitigation’: waiting and care in the time of a pandemic (Laura Salisbury)

In this paper we take up three terms – containment, delay, mitigation – that have been used by the UK Government to describe their phased response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the terms refer to a political and public health strategy – contain the virus, flatten the peak of the epidemic, mitigate its effects – we offer a psychosocial reading that draws attention to the relation between time and care embedded in each term. We do so to call for the development of a form of care-ful attention under conditions that tend to prompt action rather than reflection, closing down time for thinking. Using Adriana Cavarero’s notion of ‘horrorism’, in which violence is enacted at precisely the point that care is most needed, we discuss the ever-present possibility of failures within acts of care. We argue that dwelling in the temporality of delay can be understood as an act of care if delaying allows us to pay care-ful attention to violence. We then circle back to a point in twentieth-century history – World War II – that was also concerned with an existential threat requiring a response from a whole population. Our purpose is not to invoke a fantasised narrative of ‘Blitz spirit’, but to suggest that the British psychoanalytic tradition born of that moment offers resources for understanding how to keep thinking while ‘under fire’ through containing unbearable anxiety and the capacity for violence in the intersubjective space and time between people. In conditions of lockdown and what will be a long and drawn-out ‘after life’ of COVID-19, this commitment to thinking in and with delay and containment might help to inhabit this time of waiting – waiting that is the management and mitigation of a future threat, but also a time of care in and for the present.

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