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Those weren’t the halcyon days

Nostalgia is a smokescreen that will make us complacent.

Art by Ranuka Tandan.

I hate crowded buses and once upon a time I hated no bus more than the 413. For two years, I caught the 413 to university in the morning and then home in the evening. Outside of peak times the journey to university would take no more than twenty minutes, the bus hurtling down Parramatta Road. Most mornings though, there would be no free seats and I would have to awkwardly prop myself against a railing, sandwiched between a hundred other commuters. These journeys often took forty-five minutes to an hour. None of this quite explains my visceral hatred for the 413 though. The truth is that I have a potent anxiety around crowded spaces. On the 413 I would often be forced to close my eyes and hyperventilate to calm myself. I would sometimes still be visibly distressed a half hour after tapping off my Opal card.

One Monday in March though, I unwittingly caught the 413 for the last time. Predictably, it was 20 minutes late. Passing Parramatta Road’s abandoned shop fronts took fifty agonising minutes until the bus unceremoniously spat me out at Footbridge. That day ended up being my final day of face-to-face class in Semester 1. The initial chaos of the pandemic forced my family to move away from the clutches of the 413. Now I can walk to university. I am not shackled to its temperamental schedule. Regardless, buses nowadays are a far quieter affair abounding with empty seats. The days of shoving through commuters to exit the bus are long gone.

Despite all the countless hours and anxieties I’ve saved, I still have a 413 shaped hole in my heart. I would give anything to wake up, take a shower, pack my bag, walk to the bus stop and wait for the (inevitably late) 413. I would give anything to be sandwiched on that ramshackle bus. I would give anything to emerge at Footbridge to find it bustling with people, to walk through the quad and down Eastern Avenue to awkwardly find my seat at the back of a loud lecture theatre. It occurs to me of course that my yearning is not really for my old morning bus at all but for life as it once was, for the halcyon days of yore.

In the last several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has unceremoniously and nonconsensually ended many of our rituals and replaced them with entirely new ones. Online conferencing softwares like Zoom have leapt out of relative obscurity to become mainstays of our everyday life. Lockdowns and social distancing norms have significantly disrupted the normal ebb and flow of our social and personal lives. Globally, it has been a confusing and austere year in which to live. It is therefore not altogether surprising that I, like many I suspect, have radically reinterpreted my life in the time before COVID with the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a powerful anodyne to the malaise of the current geopolitical moment. It is also a dysfunctional and potentially dangerous one. On an interpersonal level, pre-pandemic nostalgia airbrushes the past and leaves us to conclude that our lives were idyllic before COVID. Setting aside the fact that this was seldom true for any of us, nostalgia inevitably clashes with the growing realisation that this pandemic is now set to be a drawn out affair with no clear end date. Nowadays to fondly remember mundane past events is to feel the impotence that forming similar memories has been rendered impossible, either forever or for the foreseeable future. This sting, unique to pre-pandemic nostalgia, quickly reinforces the hopelessness that is becoming an ever more common commodity in 2020. 

The real danger of this nostalgia though is in the way it threatens to colour our political analysis of this pandemic. The material consequences of COVID for society are obviously far more serious than my comparatively trivial rituals on the 413. Australia is in recession. As unemployment and insecure work have risen meteorically amid lockdowns and ongoing restrictions, Jobseeker payments have already been slashed. The federal government just passed a higher education bill that doubles the cost of humanities degrees and cuts funding to the entire sector. The years-long political theatre of the American presidential election is, in under a week, going to come to a spectacular climax amid the world’s worst local epidemic of COVID-19. 

The internet, a more important forum than ever before, is abounding with shortsighted existential dread and nostalgia is kindling the embers of hope. 2020, it is presupposed, has been a uniquely terrible year that has created all of our present problems. We reassure ourselves though that soon enough we will have an effective vaccine that allows us to hang up our masks for good and head back to festivals. The wealthy will be able to once again jet off to European summer and Donald Trump’s presidency will, hopefully, have ended. To quote the conclusion of Dolly Parton’s (quite good, for the record) pandemic-era song, “life will be good again”.

Ignoring for a moment that this is an extremely optimistic portrayal of a vaccine rollout, this is nevertheless an unsustainable vision worth properly interrogating. Australia was projected for imminent recession before this pandemic. Students and the unemployed have been the victims of a neoliberal austerity project for decades. For many people though, 2020 has nakedly demonstrated for the first time the inability of our political institutions and the market to respond to long-term crises. We know that microbiologists and epidemiologists have been warning for decades that our land use practices were inevitably going to trigger a pandemic like the one we are living; their warnings were evidently unheard. The threat of climate change has been well known for at least five decades, and minimal action has been taken to avoid catastrophe. The market, and our political institutions were already failing to address crises well before 2020 and the end of COVID will not change this reality. Pre-pandemic nostalgia however, rather than prompting us to look outward and analyse structural issues, is prompting us to look inwards, blaming one another for the symptoms of a failing system.

Since March, I have ritualistically refreshed the NSW Health twitter at exactly 11am every morning, anticipating the daily case numbers. Once I hear Dr. McAnulty report back, I then head to the “CoronavirusDownunder” subreddit where the minutiae of the day’s numbers are already being discussed by a dedicated online commentariat. When there are new venues where cases have visited, these are extensively analysed and pre-pandemic memories of these venues shared. Those who have visited too many venues or apparently waited too long to be tested are condemned as socially irresponsible reprobates. Daniel Andrews is the most controversial figure on the forum and his personal failings are discussed extensively as the root cause of Victoria’s second wave, rather than wider and more long-term problems with the casualised workforce. Andrews, of course, has fervent supporters (mostly Labor true believers) who point to his apparent personal sacrifices amid the second wave. These online communities validate our primal anxieties about change and provide us with convenient, and it must be remarked, usually incorrect, scapegoats.

It comes as no great surprise then that far-right conspiracies have flourished in the pandemic. While the antivax movement has been steadily gaining prominence for many years, their alliance with a complex web of anti-lockdowners, anti-maskers and QAnon conspiracists has allowed them to gain more mainstream relevance than ever before. Just a few days ago, Friday 23 October, their Melbourne protest against the ongoing restrictions made national news. This group is united by a radical theory that also draws on pre-pandemic nostalgia of greater individual freedoms to argue that in fact, COVID-19 is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a global elite to surveil citizens and test their ability to totally control society. 

While I acknowledge the problems of generalising conclusions from the dark corners of the internet, I deeply worry that nostalgic longing for our lives to return to “normal” is going to compromise the potential of this political moment. It is legitimate and human to grieve what might have been and the permanent loss of our comfortable old rituals. Returning to the past has, however, never been a worthwhile political project and has been the historical pretext for unsavoury reactionary ideologies I need not discuss extensively here. This pandemic has exposed a structurally broken economic and political system, but it has also exposed an opportunity. We are positioned today not simply to return to the normalcy of neoliberal capitalism, but to create a new society wholesale. So tonight I will not dream of the countless journeys I took on the 413 in a bygone era. Instead I will dream of a better society, one that we can and will create together. I will let that be the thing that gives me hope. 

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