Conflicting Temporalities of Care? A Perspective from Sweden // Doris Lydahl

Many discussions of societal problems have lately been about care, time and temporality. Should we care for the present or should we care for the future? And is there even a tension between these two options? Consider, for example the last years climate movement. What is “Fridays for Future” if not a call for the world to act now to care for a better future? This means giving up business as usual, and taking radical actions, which also includes letting go some of the comforts we have learned to live with. In the debates about the climate, some discuss the best way of caring for the future, while others seem to argue that we should not think so much about the future but instead focus on today – the present – and continue our lifestyle.

With Covid-19, this struggle over care, time and temporality has become everybody’s business. If only a dedicated few discussed the past, the present and the future in relation to climate change, a lot more do so in relation to the corona virus. Two contrasting tendencies can be sketched. First, the call to “flatten the curve” can be seen as a form of care for the future. Flattening the curve is a way of stretching time, by lengthening the time period in which the virus spreads. It is a way to care for future health care. By keeping social distance now , or even being isolated, we will be able to make sure that future health care is not overloaded, and that we have enough hospital room, that there are supplies, and enough health care professionals for every patient needing care. This care for the future has become institutionalized, and in some instances mandatory, to different degrees in different countries.

A second tendency, seen both in news reporting and in social media, is to continue with life as normal as possible. This can be seen as a form of care for the present. Here people are arguing that continuing business as usual allows them to live a fulfilling life in the present, which is more valuable than for example living a long life in the future.

These different forms of temporalities and care give rise to intense discussions. In Sweden, where I live, this discussion is perhaps extra vivid. When I write this (March 25th, 2020), Sweden is the largest European country with the fewest limits on where people can go and what they can do. We have no lockdown. High schools and universities have closed, Swedish authorities have banned public gatherings of more than 500 people, and workers whose jobs allow it are advised to work from home. We are also advised to stay at home if we feel the slightest illness and to wash our hands thoroughly. People over 70 years are advised to stay at home, but there are not penalties if they don’t. Otherwise, people are left to their own devices. Shops and restaurants are still open. How and what people should do, and whether we should care for the future or for the present is thus open for discussion, or conflict.

An example can be found in a news article from last week. In this article, the president of a local chapter of the Swedish National Pensioners’ Organisation says that he personally feel that the measures taken by the Swedish authorities and the call for people over 70 years to stay at home is a bit too drastic “We over 70 can’t just lay down and die” he says. For this man, to care for the present is vital. Not going out and not continuing one’s life, he seems to reason, equals death and not a life worth living. In the same article a 92-year-old woman is interviewed. The same day as the interview took place, she had a friend over for lunch. “I am not afraid. I have had a rich life and some day we are all going to die”, she says. Here, this woman brings another temporality into the discussion: the past. As the woman has had a rich past, she is not afraid of the future, and therefore the present is what is most important to her. Here, a generational conflict seems to be present as well.

In response to this, and to similar articles, there has been an outpour of debates articles and comments in social media. People are upset that “the elderly” only care for their present selves and not for our common future.

But perhaps there is another way to go about this? By precisely attending to and with care, perhaps we can care for the past, the present and the future? After being an important topic in feminist research since the 1970’s, care has, in recent years, gained increased momentum in Science and Technology Studies (STS). According to Puig de la Bellacasa (2017: 70) care is “a manifold range of doings needed to create, hold together, and sustain life and continue its diverseness”. Puig de la Bellacasa draws on Joan Tronto and Bernice Fisher and their work on a feminist ethics of care. According to them care is “everything we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our world’ so that we can live in as well as possible” (Fisher and Tronto in Tronto 1993: 103). Importantly, care should not be conflated with affection and positive feelings, because in the process of cherishing some things, care also excludes others. Thus, care is “a selective mode of attention” (Martin et al. 2015: 627). This becomes apparent in the cases presented above. When flattening the curve and caring for the future in Sweden, elderly people are feeling isolated and left out. When continuing business as usual and caring for the present, hospitals risks overflowing in the future.

In order to hold together and sustain life, we need to find ways of identifying what and who risks being excluded through our modes of care. The challenge we are facing, therefore seems to be to find ways of breaking isolation for the elderly – caring for the present – , while still caring for the future.

Doris Lydahl, PhD
University of Gothenburg


Martin, A., Myers, N., & Viseu, A. (2015). The politics of care in technoscience. Social Studies of Science, 45(5), 625-641.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of care: speculative ethics in more than human worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tronto, J. C. (1993). Moral boundaries : a political argument for an ethic of care. London: Routledge.