Pandemic

Few phrases captured the atmosphere of lethargy and disorientation in which many of us lived under lockdown as ‘brain fog’. The term has come to denote a whole range of symptoms – from fatigue and forgetfulness to anxiety and an inability to focus – that serve as an historical marker for our Covid moment. Yet, as literary scholar Thomas H. Ford observes, the malaise is far from unique to the twenty-first century. In this episode of The ABR Podcast, listen to Ford as he traces the history of cognitive fuzziness, revealing the persistent concerns about mental overwork of which ‘brain fog’ is only the latest diagnosis.

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The Australian summer was once again a story of Covid. Just as things were slowly reaching a state of ‘Covid-normal’, Omicron came along to present us with new, decidedly unwelcome, challenges. Despite Omicron, our summer did not pass by without one of its most defining features: sport. Many events went ahead as planned, not least the Australian Open tennis tournament.

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It was, inevitably, in a Zoom meeting that I first noticed the phrase. A colleague, excusing some minor oversight, explained it away with the words: ‘Sorry, Covid brain fog.’ Although I hadn’t consciously registered the expression before, I knew exactly what she meant.

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Most people, and certainly most politicians, don’t spend much time or emotional energy thinking about whether human life on this planet will still exist in one hundred years’ time, or what efforts might need to be made right now if we and our descendants are to avoid extinction.

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After Lockdown: A metamorphosis by Bruno Latour, translated by Julie Rose

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December 2021, no. 438

Bruno Latour’s new book, After Lockdown: A metamorphosis, is so engaging from the first that one feels obliged to begin just where he does: with an arresting portrait of a man who wakes from a long sleep to find that everything, save the moon and its indifferent rotations, makes him uneasy. Everywhere he sees reminders of the lost innocence of the Anthropocene. The sun brings to mind global warming; the trees, deforestation; the rain, drought. Nothing in the landscape offers solace. Pollution has left its mark everywhere, and he feels vaguely responsible for it all. And now, to top it off, the very breath that sustains his life carries the risk of premature death. How many of his neighbours might he infect (or be infected by) amid the vapour trails of his evening walk? Nature, it seems, is having its revenge, and the ‘in-out-in’ of lockdown threatens to become interminable.

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How will the year 2020 be remembered? No doubt the headline event was the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered schools, factories, and hospitality services, leading to a contraction of per capita income for ninety-five percent of the world’s economies. For Europe, the acrimonious exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union would serve as a stark reminder of how fragile supranational institutions are in the face of popular fury. Following the murder of George Floyd, similar rage at police brutality marked a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which preceded a combative presidential election that denied Donald Trump a second term. And the world endured one of its hottest years on record, with surface temperatures reaching nearly one degree above the 141-year average as fires burned through Australia and the United States.

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More than a year ago, I wrote about how those of us interested in language were tracking the many words and expressions being generated by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, all of Australia was in iso, and we had all turned to the joys (for some of us) of isobaking or learning to crochet. As the pandemic has dragged on, the language generated by it has changed. The Covidspeak of 2021 reflects our concerns about vaccinations, borders, and the impact of the Delta variant (often shortened to Delta or the Delta). The language of the pandemic has shifted to reflect our increasing frustration with slow vaccination rates, multiple and extended lockdowns and border closures, and government decisions and actions taken around these things.

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In the allegory of the cave, Plato hypothesised the birth of the philosopher as one who emerged from the darkness of illusion into the light of truth. In the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, philosophers are finding a platform, mostly in the press, indicative perhaps that we need an interpretation of what is happening around us beyond that offered by the media and daily conferences. As with Plato’s philosopher, what they have brought back is not necessarily what we wanted to hear, and some have been threatened with pariah-like status for views that sometimes run counter to the prescribed consensus. This was certainly the case with Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

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The collective dislocation that followed the advent of Covid-19 generated (and continues to generate) a slew of books intended to make sense of the turmoil. Encompassing Slavoj Žižek’s anti-capitalist treatise Pandemic! (2020) and books for children such as Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar’s While We Can’t Hug (2020), the responses have ranged from considered attempts to apprehend the pandemic’s scientific, political, and social parameters to those designed to do little more than catch the Covid wave before it passes. Regrettably, Peter Doherty’s An Insider’s Plague Year tends more towards the latter.

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Doom by Niall Ferguson & The Premonition by Michael Lewis

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August 2021, no. 434

One of the disconcerting aspects of this pandemic is that there was no shortage of warnings. For decades, virologists foresaw the coincidence of urbanisation, human proximity with animals, climate change, and globalisation as ideal conditions for spreading deadly pathogens. Science journalists wrote books with titles such as The Coming Plague (Laurie Garrett) and Spillover (David Quammen), whose conclusions were amplified by TED-talking billionaires. SARS, MERS, Ebola, and swine flu were further clues. Yet come January 2020, authorities worldwide were slow, indecisive, and ill-prepared.

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