The lack of master narrative before the virus was aparent. President Trump, grasping for authority as a true authoritarian playbook, argued the situation demands force, as his removed son-in-law, the dauphin Jared Kushner, spun 60,000 deaths from COVID-19 as a “great success story,” as if to challenge the nation’s personal narratives with a monolithic storyline of a disconnect from communities which were ravaged by hospitalizations. In claiming his father-in-law created a “pathway to safely open up this great country,” Kushner radiated overconfidence as he painted a rosy future even when the figures didn’t add up. He not only used a spilt infinitive, but evoked a split reality: claims Trump was doing “things right” with coronavirus testing plummeting to 30% percent, over twenty-five million unemployed and further furloughs coming, and one million infected by the coronavirus and 60,000 dead in a month, hardly fit narratives that suggest “great success.” As Vice President Pence followed identical talking points, in a few months, assuring folks “we slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” we sensed a mismatch not only to any map in news media, but to the actuality on the ground, encouraging cognitive dissonance to a widespread crisis of public health by assuring Americans rather than “a much better place.” The sense that Donald Trump hadn’t been reading the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, as early as January, of an infection that had spread to over a thousand people in China, before an outbreak of a novel coronavirus was reported to the World Health Organization on January 3, or before China sequenced a draft genome of the virus a month after the first outbreak, on January 11, calm was radiated through June.
Most of the nation was unable to process where the nation was in relation to the epidemic’s spread, but the absence of congruency confirmed only a long-lasting narrative of social abandonment. There was indeed something like a national war of narratives continued in maps, as maps told different stories–and radically different histories–of a nation and its state of health, as the narrative of social abandonment and a public health crises was denied, massaged, and reorganized from the White House, as it attempted to manage the political narrative of the virus, and the increased social abandonment that was the result of decaying and undermined public health system was apparent–and, increasingly, the abandonment of the nation was somewhat emblematized in the closures of schools, and absence of funding not only for a public health response but for schools. Although kids were less likely to be a vector of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 than they would be in influenza, the persistence of modeling viruses as “the flu” led to a precocity of school closures, disrupting many family lives, and curtailing options of educational retention or progress, as few knew after a few months why the schools were shuttered–or what option other than shuttering schools were. Many have already scheduled reopening by mixed virtual and in-person operations, but suspension and evacuation seemed–akin to an actual war–the default reaction, perhaps in imitation of Chinese shuttering of state-run institutions in Wuhan.
The national war of narratives continued in maps, as maps told different stories–and radically different histories–of a nation and its state of health, extending to the labelling of the anti-policing protests to domestic terrorism, in ways that seemed set to expend force on a domestic theater, but not for education or health care. Yet while the infection was in need of curtailing, children are only able to account for 2% of COVID-19 cases, and seem to transmit the disease far less than others–and are rarely hospitalized, as they are far younger; the continuation of schools in Australia and New Zealand suggest that children rarely pass on the infection to other kids or teachers, and the mechanics of transmission was perhaps poorly understood as the reaction to earlier fears of pandemics–from the age of SARS or H1N1, or H1N5, were rolled out, without attending to how SARS-CoV-2 was contracted or had spread. Most importantly, perhaps, keeping schools open was a basis for monitoring kids, and focussing their attention, as well as engaging their minds, in ways that the schools were struggling, in part as government had done little to encourage.
A need for orientation was the increasingly pressing story of COVID-19, which point-based maps perhaps poorly showed. For the sense of an absence of leadership was more apparent for some time: intense social distancing practices adopted as an efficient top-down if radical means to curtail transmission of the novel coronavirus in China, where sevenfold decreasing of social contacts successfully contained the coronavirus, had been rarely adopted in the United States. Distancing was a public health strategy successfully adopted in Italy, where Chinese experts had arrived, but stubborn refusal to adopt World Health Organization protocols or potential foreign help mapped onto a home-brewed failure to enact social distancing in the highly mobile population that had enabled infections to spread beyond the actual CDC tally in the United States; we moved through months with no sense of when testing would occur, or become widely available in areas of need: as health services are viewed as a good regulated by markets and providers, there was not even a clear sense of testing protocols or practices, as states were left to fend for their own private contractors, often residing out of state, and no clear abilities of a turnaround in tests or test kits were provided.
The lack of a national health care system, eroded in the previous thirty years, was betrayed in the lack of any ground game. President Trump revealed the hope of testing to the nation as if game show prizes in a Reality TV show, rather than a public health disaster–addressing the nation from a lectern with a detachment from governance of the situation on the ground, as if seeking to foment dissensus. The practices of testing widely that was suggested met disinterest from the President, lest “when you do more testing, you find more cases, and then they report our cases are through the roof,” as if it was disadvantageous–suggesting a lack of interest in creating consensus that has yet to be understood, revealing a strikingly limited attention span to anything but registers of perception, even in public health.
While we are before a new disease, which we do not grasp in its pathways of infection fully, or its vectors of transmission, and mitigating factors, and lack the vaccine we will probably need to contain, we may feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, in “ground zero of empiricism,” and all in the seventeenth century, vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, without adequate explanatory categories or diagnostic tools. But the disorientation of facing the disease disrupted the nation, and the current news that Gilead Sciences hope to charge hospitals $3,120 per patient with insurance to be treated with six vials of the drug suggests that Trump encouraged the inequity of any treatment or response to COVID-19,– triggering fears of a spate of unaffordable drugs in a pandemic will be driven by a profit motive in Trump’s America.
A pandemic is by its nature both local and global by definition–and begins from a local outbreak. But if the only way to gain orientation to a pandemic is by accurate local counts, the problem of balancing–or toggling between–the local and global has become staggeringly pronounced in the case of COVID-19, as if the point-based cartography that we use to track the disease has the better of us, and upper hand, with the absence of accurate local counts. The lack of clear data that came from Wuhan in the days that followed the outbreak of the virus revealed worrisome problems of transparency. The difficulty that the Chinese government had in getting a clear bearing on the zoonotic virus raised problems of even trying to map its rise, to which all data visualizations since seem to respond: as local officials were loathe to shoulder responsibility, the tally of infected in Hubei Province jumped, astoundingly, forcing the government to recognize the ease of its transmission among humans, was far more virulent than believed. But at this point, looking back in the mirror provides little sense of orientation to the multiplication of dispersed local outbreaks of coronavirus that we are increasingly challenged to map in relation to ourselves.
The sudden uptick of cases reveals a reticence in tallying the infected out of fears of reprisals for apparent incompetence, an institutional blame-shifting triggering mechanisms of concealment that has led American meat-packing plants to hide numbers of infected workers, and numbers of tests for infection to be far lower than official records suggest: the absence of ability to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 led us to proliferate maps in hopes to grasp its rapid doubling, uncomfortable at the world they began to show, apprehensive at how to come to terms with the rapidity of local outbreaks of confirmed cases with sufficient granularity, and enough continuities, hoping to track contagion as hopes of containment were beginning to fade in the new aggregates that were increasingly evident.
The warning of the virus’ spread was raised by Li Wenliang on December 30 from Wuhan, inter-agency shifting of blame and responsibility in Wuhan– a reflexive institutional blame-shifting by “throwing woks”–abruptly ceased with summons of Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, he who lured Elon Musk to Shanghai, to restore order: as a new hospital was built, tallies of new cases of coronavirus in Hubei astronomically grew by nine from 1,638 to 14,840, shocking the world–a figure was in keeping with the nearly 1,400 people dead in the country, but suggesting a viral load of unprecedented proportions. Americans apprehensively watched the disease afflicting passengers of cruise liners as if it would arrive ashore, its virulence was in fact already of pandemic proportions: yet American disinformation here took over, as we were told to stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, as fears were overblown, and tried to keep calm. And then, the tables were turned, as the United States President described, or suggested, a national policy of intentional undercounts, and limited testing, lest the counts discovered tank his popularity–the stock market value of Trump, International, or, rather, Trump-in-Office, Trump-as-Chief-Executive, whose new season might be canceled due to low ratings. And although the virus began in China, how the United States increasingly came to be the outlier in the numbers of infection confirmed weekly suggested a national story of mismanagement, as the narrative we told ourselves of American exceptionalism before illness seemed to have boomeranged, with the three-day averages of confirmed infections skyrocketing, and setting us apart from the very nations we compare ourselves to, but whose health-care policy we increasingly realize we are distinct from.
Americans were soothed by deceptive common-sense talk. But the results of a lack of investment in public health are all too evident, if our maps are . Robert Redfield, a virologist who served as the public spokesperson of reassurance who had long sustained false theories about retroviruses causing HIV and AIDS, argued that even if the fourteen confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were monitored and traced, “the virus more exploded . . beyond public health capacity,” he seemed to forget he had not developed that capacity. Virology is of course Dr. Redfield’s area of expertise, but he won his political post in no small part by being practiced in massaging truth statements for political ends. During AIDS outbreak, the last major plague in the United States, he had advocated unproven drugs billed as HIV vaccines and encouraged quarantine, abstinence, and stripping the medical licenses of HIV-infected medical workers, more than accelerating cures; Redfield took time to blame the Obama administration for implementing clinical tests, to please his patron. Bt he obscured the level of infections that in truth were not known, blinding the nation to a cartography of COVID by not advancing adequate levels of testing, that returned us to the simple equation of the dog days of AIDS, only able to make us yell, yet again, this time with Larry Kramer, stalwart resistor of the silencing of AIDS by the failure to use on-trial medicine–
–at the utter deception with which we met the pandemic. Dr. Redfield must have met his commission to radiate calm by assuring Americans in late February. As he assured us only fourteen cases had been diagnosed in the United States, the number meant little, as any virologist should kmow; while hindsight is a benefit that obscures us from the need to life life forwards, we suspect urban hotspots were already laden with infected individuals by March 1, a silent ticking bomb of urban outbreaks already infecting 28,000 as it spread broadly its “hotspots”–New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago–all of massively different density, without tests being able to affirm the scale of its spread.
There was no map. And then, all of a sudden, the globalization of coronavirus hit home; any place in the world could be related to any other place, as rates of infection bloomed globally in geographically disjointed hotspots, spatially removed from one another, even as a standard for uniform testing lacked. And there was no sense of an art of dying, as the amazingly rapid contraction and worsening of illnesses left many without a script, and many more silent before a dizzying multiplication of statistics of mortality in the face of COVID-19, several weeks later.
Every other map of COVID-19’s spread seems an attempt to persuade the viewer of its accuracy and totality, in retrospect, even as we have no clear sense of the total figures of infection-or even of the paths infection takes. We are mystified by the geography and spatial dynamics of the virus’ travel, but realize the severe communicability of a virus whose load is stored in the naso-laryngeal passages, and can be communicated by airborne drops. Is distancing the best way we can constrain the geographic spread of infection? Can statistics demonstrate the success of curtailing its spread?
It was a hidden agenda in the maps of news agencies and to register the accurate levels of infection, promising the sorts of transparency that had been clouded in much of January. And while we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, there is a sense of truth-telling, as a result, of revealing the scope of the virus’ actual spread that compensates for the lack of clarity we once had. But it is also increasingly difficult to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, for we still are looking at pretty limited and almost superficial data, in the sense we have trouble plotting it in a narrative context, or find a reaction more than shock. The virus is easy in ways to personify as a threat–it wants us outside; it comes from afar; it pervades public spaces and hospital grounds; it demands vigilant hand-washing and sanitizing–but the very numbest are elusive. While we try to track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, we have been lumping numbers of tests that might be apples and oranges, and have not found a consistent manner of testing. Deaths are difficult to attribute, for some, since there are different sites where the virus might settle in our bodies.
Even while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19. It is frustrating that our GPS maps, which we seem able to map the world, can map numbers of surrogates for viral spread, but we have yet to find a way to read the numbers in a clear narrative, but are floored by the apparently miasmatic spread of such a highly contagious disease that makes us feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, that we are in “ground zero of empiricism,” as if we are now all in the seventeenth century, not only in being vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, but without explanatory and diagnostic tools.
This was, to be sure, a past plague come to life, requiring new garb of masks, face-shields, and protective gear for health workers–
–as the cloaks, leather gloves, staffs and masks that made up early modern protective gear returned to fashion, as if in a time warp, in new form.
We find a leveling between folk remedies and modern medicine, as we live collectively in what she calls a “ground-zero moment of empiricism”–if one in which we are deluged by data, but short in knowing what is data, as we are lacking in explanatory models. This is a bit unfair, as we still can profit from autopsies, and have been able to contain spread by hand-washing–but the images of a single magic bullet, or antiviral cure, are far, far away in time. But there is no longer any familiarity with an art of dying, although we found we encountered death with an unforeseen and unpleasant rapidity: we moved from hopes for awaiting immunity or antivirals to a basic need for some consolation of our mortality. There was no possibility of transcendence in a crisis of mortality of dimensions and scope that seem outside the modern era.
And it is ironic that distancing is the best mode to prevent infection–and many deaths may have been enabled by quicker decisions to adopt practices of distancing that could manage viral spread, Trump seemed not to notice that the very globalization he had resisted, and swung against with all his force to win votes, had facilitated the spread of a viral agent whose arrival was denied even as SARS-CoV-2 had already begun to flood the United States, in ways we only mapped in retrospect, as a global village that by March 1 had already grown satellites of viral loads in South Korea, the Middle East, Iran (Teheran), Europe (Milan; Gotheborg), South East Asia, and Hong Kong, as we anticipated its arrival with no health policy in place and no strategy for containing what was already on our shores. The global crossroads defied any choropleth, but we had only mapped the virus for some time in choropleths, as if believing by doing so we could not only map it by national boundaries to keep the virus at bay.
But if we lacked a model of infection and communication of COVID-19, we lacked a sense of the geography by which to understand its spread–and to map it–and also, deeply problematically, an inter-agency coordination to assess and respond to the virus’ spread as we sought to contain it: and in the United States, the absence of any coordinating public health agency has left the country in something like free-fall, a cluelessness emblematic by a map cautioning American travelers to take enhanced protections while traveling in Italy or Japan, two major destinations of travel, and avoid all nonessential travel to China, but refrained from ceasing travel plans.
1. The most compelling language of the novel coronavirus is “false positives” and “false negatives,” that seem to betray the unsure nature of standards; the most haunting is the multiple sites COVID-19 can appear in the sites of the body we use to map most disease. While we associate the virus with our respiratory tracts, the virus can do damage to multiple organ systems, as well as create blotchiness of “covid toes” due to burst peripheral blood vessels; it can damage multiple organ systems simultaneously, including the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and linger in our intestinal tract where it can flourish and proliferate; the virus can reduce the ability of our blood to form clots, or disable our ability to form clots. The ACE-2 receptor protein, a launching pad for viral infections, lies in our lungs and respiratory tract but in stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. Increased sensitivities among those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes reflect the nosological difficulties of classifying the virus as a cause of death or to grasp it as an illness, let alone to read data about the disease. If the virus lodges in the most delicate structures of the alveoli, which it causes to collapse as it infects their lining, it can take multiple pathways in the body, and as its pathway of infection may be multiple, medical response must be improvised with no playbook for clinical care.
All we know is that our medical staff desperately need protective gear. On top of that, it hardly helps that we are without a clear national policy, and find that the United States government has engaged in far less transparency that one could have ever expected.
We can only say its spread is accelerated dramatically by structures of globalization, and it stands to disrupt them. utterly Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? Or do we even know what sorts of data to look at–indeed, what is information that can help us process a sense of what might be the geography of the contraction or the transmutability of the virus? Is the virus eluding our maps, as we try to make them? These sort of questions of making sense may be the process of science, but they trace, suddenly, a far steepder learning curve than we are used.
A dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine cautioned that we still lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response.” Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, bemoaned the limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the pandemic.
Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.
2. And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.
For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?
The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.
These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?
Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–
–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. Even if the Center for Disease Controls had never done clinical tests on hydrochloroquine, whose dangers on humans were not studied, and despite some benefits of the antiviral on cell cultures, none appeared in mice, the drug was promoted widely on social media as late as April, although its mention on Twitter grew, even as the government delayed any roll-out of testing sites.
The demand to calm the nation, a position dangerously close to concealment, delayed action on a wave of infection that President Trump had long sought to deny, claim to be overblown, or call Fake News. The lack of a public testing initiative, and rejection of the tests of other nations, forced the United States to adopt a disorganized go-it-aloneist approach, akin to isolationism, not benefiting from the potential ties to Chinese doctors’ response, or the testing kits that would have been available that the World Health Organization (WHO) had suspected since January, and made test kits for poorer countries that might be replicated in the United States–which chose to make its own tests to ensure the highest quality. When WHO had urged countries “test, test, test” for the coronavirus to contain its spread, the global health organization provided 1.5 million tests to 120 countries who lacked the ability to test by March 16; the United States went without the diagnostic tests developed in Berlin by la Charité, implemented in Germany. If the United States had submitted a test to WHO as well, the German test the health organization adopted was never used or ordered–and by mid-March processed a sixth the specimens as in Italy, with found over six times as many cases, and an eleventh as in South Korea, which found double the cases.
By April, the picture had improved, but not much.
And based on later data of the virus that spread to other American cities, the virus that had infected so many in New York seems to have spread to other American metropoles by May, as we were still awaiting broad testing.
If elites have long harangued lower classes for continuing behavior that continued to spread disease, interpretation of the spread of illness has rarely divided so strikingly along separate interpretations. It is as if life or death matters were open to public debate: rarely have reactions to an infection been able to be received so clearly along partisan lines. While reaction to COVID-19 were long cast in partisan terms by the President, our Fearless Leader of Little Empathy, as far overblown, the surprise was perhaps that even as the data grew, and the exponential growth of infections in American cities began, the decision to announce Shelter-In-Place directives in hopes to “flatten the curve” shuttering non-essential businesses with increased fears of overloading public health facilities.
Faced by drastically uneven hospital bed capacities in individual states, reflecting existing fears of hospital bed capacities for intensive care units or floor beds, and deepening fears of needs to add increased beds across the nation, to confront a major public health emergency. Using different scenarios of increased needs for beds based on infection rates, a relatively moderate need for beds: infection of a fifth of the population in six months would compel expanding existing capacity for beds in multiple western states already hard-hit form infections, like Washington and California, east coast states, including Massachusetts and New York, and Midwest’s like Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota, and many pockets of other states, including Louisiana. Actual fears of such an impending emergency of public health emergency —
–grows even sharper if one allows oneself to imagine an expansion of infection rates to 40%–not unheard of for the highly infectious novel coronavirus–over the same six month period:
1. Even as “Shelter-in-Place” measures sought to staunch the spread of infections across the nation, the uneven nature of the measures adopted by state governors, mayors, and counties suggested a fragmenting of the nation, as the governors of many states reacted to the issuance of shelter-in-place orders or stay-at-home directives by declaring their separate rule of law, in the words of Alabama’s Governor, “we are not New York state, we are not California–right now is not the time to shelter in place.”
Yet if the confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus seemed concentrated in preponderance in Louisiana, California, and New York, the virulence of its transmission was far more widely distributed, Philip Bump created a simple overlay to show, and the readiness of imposing measures of restriction were often resistant to accept school closures, or shuttering bars and restaurants as a means to restrain the virus’ spread.
Such choropleths are poor indicator of concentration and dispersion of infection, or of the “hot-spots” early watchers of the novel coronavirus hoped to isolate, folks commuting from counties of identifiable outbreaks created an immediately far more complicated map of viral dispersal, often crossing state lines and state jurisdictions at the very start of March, as work commuting alone bled from 34 counties into 1,356–even into Mississippi!
Despite some a lone call the President impose a national shelter-in-place order, but the response of asking for a collective sacrifice would be hard to imagine. But the animosity that Trump revealed to any governors who tried to impose a policy of social distancing has intensified a new sense of federalism, as the increasing opposition that President Trump has directed toward Governors who have responded with attempts to enforce social distancing led, mutatis mutandis, to a new call for “liberating” states from social distancing requirements, President Trump announced April 21 that “We are opening up America again,” with great content, heralding an “opening” across twenty states comprising two-fifths of the nation’s population, if partial reopening are only slated in eighteen states.
But how could one say that the need for social distancing was not increasingly important, in a nation where health care is not only not accessible to many, but that hospital bed capacity is uneven–and would need to be ramped up to serve the communities–
–but that many areas are distant from ready testing, diagnosis, or indeed the ability for easily accessible health care? What is COVID-19, if not a major wake-up call for disparities in public health and medical access?
–and many regions suffer severe health care professional shortages, that have been obscured in the deep shortages of health professionals, according to Rural Health Info, who have revealed these gaps in the following infographic, but many towns in each county remain difficult to get to hospitals in time in cases of emergency or need.
2. The legitimacy offered to “re-opening” states for business channeled a rousing sense of false populism across the nation, courting possible onset of a second wave of infections by easing llocal restrictions on social distancing–although testing is at a third of the level to warrant safe a transition, several governors claim “favorable data” to justify opening shuttered businesses. But when @RealDonaldTrump retweeted an attack on public safety measures against COVID-19 that were enacted in California and other states to slow airborne viral infection that labeled the closures of bars, restaurants, and theaters as revealing local states’ “totalitarian impulses” in the face of COVID-19, as having effectively “impaired the fundamental rights of tens of millions of persons” and flagrantly abrogating constitutional rights and natural liberties: the endorsing of a tweet of former judge, Andrew Napolitano, of an open “assault our freedom in violation of Constitution” demeaning sheltering policies as”nanny-state rules . . . unlawful and unworthy of respect or compliance,” inviting the sort of social disobedience, encouraging the stress-test on our nation that the pandemic poses be generalized?
While the calls to prevent violations of the U.S. Constitution have grown in recent weeks from March to April, it makes sense to question the validity of an eighteenth-century document to a public health emergency–or to abilities to respond to a zoonotic disease of the twenty-first century. Never mind that such arguments ignore the reserving of rights of state governors in the U.S. Constitutions Tenth Amendment to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the inhabitants of their territory, is the ability to manage state health not a calculus for public health officers, rather than a partisan debate? There is a despicable false populism and rabble rousing in decrying “nanny-state rules” as “unlawful and unworthy of compliance,” and covers for “assaults on freedom” as a Lockeian natural right. Yet in retweeting such charges and denigrating policies of social distancing as “subject to the whims of politicians in power,” President Trump perpetuated the notion that medical consensus was akin to an individual removed from public concerns. In doing so, Trump echoed the opinion of a member of his own Coronavirus Economic Advisory Task Force, Heritage Foundation member Stephen Moore, to protest “government injustices” echoing false populist calls to “liberate” Michigan and Minnesota from decrees of Democratic governors. As Moore called for further protests, opening a group, Save Our Country, dedicated to agitating for the reopening of states, out of concern for the “abridgment of freedom” of sheltering in place.
The call to arms over a rejection of social distancing emphasized the translation of the pandemic into purely partisan terms, and echoed the partisan resistance to the states-right discourse of a rejection of health care, using the panmdemic to divide the nation along party lines.
3. The weekend before SIP was announced in the East Bay, my daughter’s High School suspended, and I snuck out in the mask-free days for a Monday morning coffee at my favorite café, where my friend Mike caused some consternation in line by ordering through his black 3M facemask. The mood was survivalist and grim, but we stopped outside our local Safeway, as if to provisions before an impending lockdown, looking for half-and-half. Staring me in the eyes, Mike said with some resignation that the massive mortalities in northern Italy were our future in a week at most, as the spreading waves of infections migrated crosscountry, approaching in something like a delayed real time; the question was only when “It’s gonna happen here.”
What was happening across the Atlantic Ocean was trending not only on social media, but was being attentively followed by epidemiologists like Dr. Cody, apprehensive of the state of development of pubic health across the entire East Bay.
The Public Health Officers in the region had been haunted by the vision, alerted by the tangible fears of the Santa Clara Public Health Officer, Dr. Sara Cody. That very day, Cody was convening the coming early Monday morning, gripped by a sense of panic for a need for action, as the public drinking festivities of St. Patrick’s Day loomed, and as Chinese health authorities curbed travel and cancelled New Years celebration, even if its airborne communication was doubted, in hopes to contain an outbreak that still seemed centered in its largest numbers in Wuhan province–
4. It was if we were watching in real-time image the global ballooning of COVID-19 infections in the Bay Area feared was on its way to Silicon Valley, or the entire Bay Area, as the virus traveled overseas. The lockdown that had begun in northern Italian towns in a very localized manner from late February when a hundred and fifty two cases were found in Turin, Milan, and the Veneto, had, after all, only recently expanded to the peninsula, filling Intensive Care Units of hospitals or transforming them to morgues. Although elegant graphics provided a compelling narrative, with the benefit of retrospect, that “Italy’s Virus Shutdown Came Too Late,” the interactive story of a “delayed” shutdown after the February 24 shutdown of sites of outbreak within days of the first identification of an infection in Milan, across two “red zones” around Italian cities, and the March 3 cordoning of larger areas.
The reluctance to impose a broader shutdown over the northern economy created a tension between commerce and public health that led to a late ‘shutdown’ of the movement across the peninsula by March 10 to prevent infection risks, haunted by public health disaster.
Fears of the actuality of a similar public health disaster spreading under her nose led Dr. Cody to convene a quick check-up with local public health officers to see if they registered a similar alarm, and what policy changes were available across a region whose populations are so tightly tied. And the need to convene a mini-summit of Public Health Officers to take the temperature of willingness to recommend immediate public policy changes was on the front burner, as one looked at the huge difficulty of containing the outbreak in Italy–often argued to not have been responded to immediately enough, but revealing a full public health response that the Bay Area might not be able to muster, as Italy’s hospitals were flooded by patients with infections and was on its way to become the site of the most Coronavirus deaths.
Vivid fears a growth of COVID-19 filling the hospitals and emergency rooms after St. Patrick’s Day–an event for a far larger audience contracting the aggressive virus–led Dr. Cody to arrange a group call among the Public Health Officers in San Matteo and San Francisco early Monda. Dr. Cody had broad epidemiological training was rooted in an appreciation of contagious disease–including contagious diseases outbreaks like SARS, H1N1 influenza, and salmonella, and had worked on planning for public health emergencies and completed a two yer fellowship in Epidemiolgoy and Public Health, managing E. coli outbreaks as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with CDC. Fears “crystallized” quickly of a scenario of similarly exponential rise in case loads making Silicon Valley a new epicenter outbreak of an epidemic overwhelming the public health services. As she quickly contacted Public Health Officers in San Francisco and San Matteo, to contemplate a response, by March 8, a lockdown in all Lombardy and other states was declared, as COVID-19 cases multiplied, in a chilling public health disaster replicating the lockdown in China.
In contrast to the uncertain public health numbers from China, as the city’s airport, highways, and rail stations, images of massive mortality from health care disasters in Italy were haunting and suddenly far closer in space, even if cases of viral infection were already reported in each province, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan–revealing a global pandemic that linked place to a global space in ways difficult for some to get their minds around. The honesty that came out of Italy was an alarm.
The Bay Area health authorities were looked with apprehension at the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, after the exponential growth of infections from COVID-19 in the region: Dr. Mirco Nacoti had just published an eye-catching account of the catastrophic conditions of Ospedale Pap Giovanni XXIII in Bergamo that weekend, describing the levels of general contamination of caring for COVID-19 patients, for whom over two thirds of ICU beds were reserved, and filled a third of 900 rooms in thd peer-reviewed NEJM Catalyst; he described phantasmagoric scenes of a hospital near collapse as patients occupied mattresses on the grounds, intensive care beds had long waiting lines and with shortages of both masks and ventilators, and poorly sterilized hospitals became conduits for the expansion of diseases. The clinical model for private care incapacitated, as patients were left without palliative care; a surge of deaths in overcrowded wards overtook China’s community-based clinics at such higher death rates of 7,3% Italian doctors plead felt incapacitated by the surge of cases overflowing at intensive care units from March 9-11 as a model for mass infection, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
The desperation of a staged re-enactment of Michelangelo’s Pietà of L’Espresso were a few weeks or so off. While the spread of infections in our region had not yet begun, ant eh below photoshoot by Fabio Buciarelli did not appear until April 5, we were still formulation the desperation of confronting the ravages of disease we lacked time to develop any reactions, processing current or impending mortality rates.
The danger of trusting scientific modeling, or data, and fostering deep suspicions of trusting data on confirmed infections, or modeling that suggested the danger of failing to practice social distancing.
5. Decisions to “shelter in place” promised to “slow the spread” of COVID-19 transmitted widely in group settings, and able to create a public health disaster in the Bay Area, and was quickly followed by Santa Cruz county. After the growth of cases in Santa Clara county–whose rates of infection doubled over the weekend to 138 as of Monday–the absence of a any national restraining order save a suggestion to social distance, as Seattle cases of infection had grown to 400–and some 273 cases of infection had appeared over th weekend, despite limited testing availability.
The clear eventuality of a public health disaster, after a directive closing bars, night clubs, and large gatherings, as well as many school closures in San Francisco and the East Bay–where my daughter attends Berkeley High, whose doors shuttered on March 13; Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, closed bars, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and indoor entertainment on late Sunday night, as Gov. Newsom encourage all elderly to self-isolate immediately. The 6.7 million in the Bay Area early agreed on the need for a “shelter in place” order as a basis to control the spread of COVID-19 that had been discovered in the region on March 16, 2020, anticipating the nation by some time.
The closure of all non-essential businesses in the seven counties sprung from the epicenter of Santa Clara county–Silicon Valley–but included affected a much larger area of commuters, no doubt, across an interlinked region of commuting far across the northern state to twelve other counties.
The cases in Italy would only grow, creating a textbook case of the exponential expansion of illness that killed a terrifying number of physicians in hospitals on the front lines against its expansion, as the arrival of medical supplies and medical viral specialists from China increased the logic of the lockdown as a response to its spread.
The evident stresses on the health care system of Lombardy, where a terrifying number of physicians on the front line contracted the virus and died, in the wealthy region of Lombardy, distanced the disease whose effects were projected or distanced onto China, and provided a clear scenario that Cody understood could be repeated, with even worse consequences, in the crowded population and limited health facilities of Santa Clara County: her own close ties to public health authorities in Italy made the exponential growth of cases from February 21 across the peninsula seem a preparatory run-through for a future disaster, as China was sending increasing medical supplies and specialists to Italy in a global story as a pandemic was declared in China March 11; northern provinces were declared under lockdown March 8 quickly extended to the nation, as a spike in 1,247 cases were found on the previous day.
When Cody urgently alerted San Francisco Public Health Officer, Dr. Tomás Aragón, to discuss the fears of a new epicenter of COVID-19 spread in Silicon Valley, they did not start by contemplating their authority to issue a legally binding directive to shutter businesses in the region. But as they discussed consequences of the exponential increase in Santa Clara County and the greater danger of facing an analogous overwhelming of pubic health hospitals as in Italy, haunted by a danger of a similar scenario overwhelming public health, and Cody’s tangible fear, Aragón floated the idea of a shutdown, acknowledging their authority of acting without permission of governors.or mayors or county supervisors; the call touched on a series of calls to debate options, including the most dramatic — a lockdown order–which seemed the only certain means to enforce isolation and social distancing haunted by the image of the increased diagnosis of COVID-19 across the Italian peninsula that would indeed only be publicly released March 18. Two days later, Governor Newsom expanded the policy to the entire state; the time lag meant that by late April, almost half of all infected with the novel Coronavirus in California were found in Los Angeles County, and were facing the prospect of overloading its public health system and hospitals.
The influence of the health care provider Kaiser Permanente was unseen, but the preventive agenda of the health provider can be seen in a sense in the shadows of this quick consensus among six Public Health Officers. But the qyuick defense of the decision–soon followed by dozens of states since–suggests the prominence of Kaiser Health Care in the dynamic of emphasizing preventive health care, and in anticipating epidemiological spread. Cody’s brave insight into the fact that northern Italy provided a rehearsal for the public health disaster, shifting from the ban on mass gatherings to a concerted effort to isolate millions, was less apparent to the nation.
We have long considered man’s impact on the world, but are only starting to be able to chart the vastness of the scope of anthropogenic change. And wen it comes to the contraction of shores and beaches that has been forecast in current climate scenarios, the oldest of human environments, the shoreline and coast, seems in danger of drastic reduction at a scale we have rarely considered. The shifting littoral landscapse of the world have ben long neglected, if they are turned to each Earth Day for coastal cleanups and have been the site of intense preoccupations as a result of sea-level rise, as we have protected much of our national seashore.
But the prospect of an accelerated global erosion of coastal landscapes, and the loss of beaches, have only begun to be processed as triggering cascading consequences from disturbing ecological niches and coastal economies to the human relation to the natural world–a new relation to global ecology that we may well lack the vocabulary and structures to map on adequate scale to process, let alone discuss. But the mapping of coastal retreat that is projected for the coming century charts the magnitude of the scale of impact of human-created modification of a global environment in NOAA’s Fluid Dynamics Project calls for a broader reckoning of the impact on the global environment that stands to be created by coastal retreat akin to a global pandemic like SARS-CoV-2, and a remapping of the global shorelines that we have a very limited chance to come to terms with in any active context; terms like East and West don’t work in a climate catastrophe that does not differentiate not only nation states but that we lack the narrative categories to come to terms with in terms of economic inequalities, but suggest a crisis of global proportions that contrast with the delicate organization of space on shorelines near our home in their brute redrawing of the increasingly impermanent sandy shore projected for 2100, according to a rather modest climate change scenario.
The discovery of margin of the shoreline in the middle of the twentieth century as a privileged site of intense biodiversity risks obliteration as a particularly fragile ecosystem. Yet the shoreline habitat is now a site of unprecedented vulnerability. (The same stretch of sensitive shoreline habitat was quickly closed to comply with shelter-at-place directive, given the range of urban residents who drove to flood its trails, beaches, and shoreline as a way to find balance, many standing transfixed before the waves in a particularly stressful time, seeking purchase on a moment few could really grasp.)
The seashore seemed a natural place of reflection. But it was hard to imagine the sensitivity of these littoral lands. While the national seashore at Point Reyes is a unique preserved coastal environment, where eroding cliffs meet sands along broad strips of beach whose low grade offers habitat to coastal birds, grasses, and shellfish, in a meeting point of fresh and salt water, the beauty of the coast seemed a perfect refuge in a time of disorientation.
This blog has long discussed the specter of anthropogenic change, but in the panic of COVID-19, it seemed clear that we lack the mode to talk about the scale, continuities, and complexity at which such world-changing processes will occur. The future loss of shores would be quite difficult to imagine, even if one stares at the remote sensing maps that predict the effects of sea-level rise.. So many had voyaged to the shores as if by instinct during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in 2020, from Long Island to Marin, to the extent of disturbing many coastal residents, who read searching for break from anxiety by acts of coastal distancing as an unwelcome promotion of the danger of importing viral spread.
In England and elsewhere, many departed from the city, in search of a new environment, by traveling to the coasts–where they were greeted, similarly, by protests by those who saw their arrival as a harbinger of infection. Many public beaches, concerned about close contact, have outright closed, as coastal communities do their best to dissuade visitors seeking to escape infection in Hawaii, Moab, Alabama, North Carolina or the Gulf Coast–in ways that cut us off from the shore as a place of reflection and rumination.
If undue media attention may be directed to bemoaning college students on Florida Spring Break, we must remember that Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, ostensibly encharged with securing the state’s well-being and public welfare, stubbornly insisted on keeping beaches open in the state the shore until Easter, to allow “students to party” on Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater Beach, and other “hotspots” of pleasure into hot spots of viral infection: DeSantis, never one to stop claiming higher ground, hypocritically or not, only turned his wrath on the partiers after facing a lawsuit from the state Attorney General, and even as communities closed beaches, refused to shutter state beaches to limit the spread of the Coronavirus that were a vital parts of the state’s economy–reluctant to close them until local municipalities intervened.
Shifting the blame to foreign travelers–and insisting on self-quarantining visitors from New York state or New Jersey–he sought to keep them open for business, by casting them as more vital than viral. DeSantis refused to accept the national scope of the problem, defending an economy that depended on tourism, elevating the economy over national health–and keeping them open a week after the closure of Disney World, after trying to keep a “six feet distance rule” to “stop large crowds from congregating,” as if the crowding was an issue, more than human proximity and contact–and refusing to take leadership on the issue by “deferring” to local government and causing confusion. As he reflected on the large number of elders in the state population, and their potential hindering of his own chances for re-election, it seems, did he alter his stance entirely, and beg the President to declare a national emergency, as the spread of the virus led to thousands of layoffs, with all non-essential businesses closed in coastal communities, as De Santis issued a state of emergency March 9, 2020.
Meanwhile the COVID-19 data timeline by mid-March had spread across Central Florida, with cases of infection clustering on the shores. While the map that sizes the isolated pathogen as its symbol of COVID spread seems freakish, the telling newspaper graphic captures well the problem of coming to terms with the transmission of infections along the beach.
The abandonment of the closed Miami Beach–one of several citie that refused to keep its beaches open, as infection spread, as they knew what was really best for them–seemed to confirm the shore’s status as a natural site of reflection. The scope of projected reconfiguration of future shorelines would effect a deep change in the human relation to the shoreline, as much as the shoreline as a site of shelter and habitat.
For environmental geographer Clarence Glacken, the “traces on the Rhodian shore” were signs of civilization and the human modification of the environment that were fundamental to historical processes of change. The reference of the title of his survey of the modification of land through the industrial revolution took its reference point as antiquity–the image of the philosopher taking geometric figures drawn on the shores of Rhodes where he was shipwrecked as evidence of human habitation. The anecdote was prized by Vitruvius as evidence of the ability of geometry to frame the environment, and respond to it; Glacken took the image of the shores as a leitmotif for a magisterial survey of relations to the natural world that we now observe expanded and refracted in the remote sensing that tracks the broad impact of how industrialization has inscribed human relations to the environment far beyond Glacken’s four on the environmental influences on human history and man’s remaking of the environment. And the problem of the continued access to shores, and future of the shores, makes us go back to some of the early work of Glacken to recover its new relevance, if only because of our failure of models to come to terms with such massive anthropogenic change.
The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s most serious public address to the nation was a striking contrast from the theater of his most recent State of the Nation on March 12, where he sought to calm the nation as it faced the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, wrestling with the increasing urgency that his aides demanded he address the outbreak of the virus in the United States that he had long tried to deny. And who can doubt that the serial flag-waving continuing to fuel President Trump’s attacks on China and the World Health Organization don’t reveal an adherence to America First policies of nationalism before a global catastrophe?
President Trump tried to look as presidential as possible, re-inhabiting a role of authority that he had long disdained, as he was forced to address a nation whose well-being he was not in control. The national narrative, as it was begun by WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, was perhaps seen as a narrative which seemed to spin out of his control, below his eyes, as he tried to calm markets by addressing the nation in what he must have imagined to have been as reassuring tones as he could summon. And if America First as a doctrine allows little room for empathy, affirming national greatness and the importance of a logic of border closures was all he could offer, and would be predictably lacking reassurance or empathy as he attempted to create a connection at a defining moment of his Presidency.
Not that he ever wanted to give this speech. The behind-the-scenes picture that emerged in the Washington Post revealed a leader who, while starting the second Oval Office address of his Presidency, not only failed to share it with the members of the Coronavirus Task Force, but had resisted the address, was in a foul mood, and included many gaffes–from asserting that ht eUnited States “first” banned travel to China to asserting that the rates of infection were low at home–inaccurate low numbers of infections and death promoted false confidence–and incorrectly conveying the impression that all flights were suspended from Europe–even as in limiting restrictions to foreign nationals, Trump encouraged a broad re-entry of infected Americans, often through crowded airports, across the nation. If confirmed cases were low, he had clearly not grasped the magnitude of the threat, and projected much of his discomfort in undertaking the address by grousing to his aids over a stain on his shirt, that seems to have been concealed by keeping the jacket tight around his girth.
Did Trump really believe, as he would later assert in a news conference, weeks later, that he had been the first to impose travel restrictions from China in the face of the pandemic? Forty other nations not only beat him to it, but he had not only failed to isolate the nation from the virus’ spread, but perpetuated an idea that the decision to “cut off China” saved lies. The lack of orientation reveals a low level of commitment in assembling the rushed draft of the address with Kushner, Stephen Miller, and Pence, without any members of his Coronavirus Task Force, assembled almost until the moment Trump went on air, which read as if his problem was able to be reeduced to increasing the border as a preventive barrier. Slumping in his seat at the Resolute Desk, perhaps contemplating how no predecessor had ever delivered on air unprepared remarks from the desk, and visibly discomfited in doing so. He must have hoped to make up for his televised performance by sending surrogates scrambling to social media, issuing clarifications for misstatements–as the exemption offered U.S. citizens to return from China, or the exemption of Ireland, as well as England, and an assurance that trade would “in no way be affected” by the ban, as markets had reacted poorly to his performance.
As cascading fears grew in markets across the world, Trump was perhaps forced to realize his new relation to the world, even as the German stock exchanges plummeted as the measures he announced seem either difficult to process, or failing to address the importance of maintaining trade ties–or of taking adequately prudent steps of public health.
If Trump rarely trusted himself to make hand gestures as he plighted through the speech, thumbs flickering, hands clasped, he every so often seemed distinctly out of synch with his austere surroundings, gold curtains drawn to reveal two flags, barely aware, perhaps, that the eyes of the world were very much on his performance in this new sound studio to which he was not fully accustomed, trying to explain that he had undertaken measures that had made us safe, even if he must have been worrying that the lack of worry he had been projecting and urging in previous weeks had risen across the nation, and his performance was not calming them at all.
Long before he was elected United States President by an odd turn of events, real estate developer Donald Trump purchased the iconic Gulf + Western Building on the southwest corner of Central Park, emptying the modernist structure of coporate America by emptying ir of all offices, remaking a skyscraper beside the statuary at the center of Columbus Circle on a pedestal that once rose above city traffic of Manhattan’s central arteries. The skyscraper was larger than what zoning laws in New York allowed to be built by 1994, the building became a sort of shell game for a new Trump Tower that the realtor was desperate to construct, as a “premier residential site–one of the best in the world,” named “1 Central Park West.” When he returned to Moscow in the post-soviet era, where he had entertained in the Gorbachev Era of “restructuring,” to explore deals to expand his brand to Moscow, on a belief “some people have an ability to negotiate” that is innate: and in 1984, shortly after he married Ivana, Donald had seemed to reinvent his negotiating abilities to include of nuclear arms and strategic arms limitations, and imagining he might be ambassador to Russia, worked to recast the realtor as a bona fide international operator, allegedly at Roy Cohn’s urging, able to orchestrate strategic arms limitation talks, and when the Soviet Ambassador arrived in Trump Tower, Trump boasted in The Art of the Deal, “building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government” as an expression of interest for a joint venture the led to the claim in a right-wing publication “The Soviets are reportedly looking a lot more kindly on a possible presidential bid by Donald Trump, the New York builder who has amassed a fortune through real estate speculation” closely tied to “the notorious, organized-crime linked Resorts International.,” soon before he was enrolled in the 1988 Republican primary
The return of the realtor tot he post-Soviet city with new hopes to return to the hope to move a new Trump Tower in Moscow was marked by When Trump International plans for a Moscow hotel returned in 1997, did discussions with the post-Soviet opportunistic mayor trying to turn a trick move from resuscitating Trump Tower Moscow–the biggest chit that Donald could play in Moscow!–to the plans he drew up with Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern for luxury apartments towering over the Corinthian columns lifting Christofer Columbus, a column so contested as a part of the national memory, but erected by the Italian American community? And did attention turn to the monument of Columbus that was partly shipped to the United States, which not only Mayor Luzhkin and his real estate developer wife, but Boris Yeltsin offered Presidents Clinton and Bush as a sign of future partnership between the countries–a symbolic marker of their hopes for displacing the special relation of the United States and the EU? Perhaps as Trump was contemplating what sort of building he could plan across the street from Red Square, towering above the Kremlin, did the realtor fly, like a moth, too close to the flame, and he was offered a towering bronze Columbus that might be built near his riverside complex, as a prominent marker of a new relation of Russia and America? While these images were made in an LOI 2015, in a planned 120 story “world class luxury condominium,” with pool, Trump World Tower Moscow, the initial plans for Trump tower began long before Michael Cohen lied, but perhaps in the prospective conversion of Federation Tower as a building he might brand with the Trump name, just before 2008, and which Trump wanted to repurpose in 2013.
About the time that Trump visited Moscow in 1997, discussion turned to the shipping the body monumental piece of Columbus statuary–the largest built–to New York, whose head was already in the United States territory. “On the banks of every great river in the world, you’ll find a monument to excess,” observed a bombastic character in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide observes, on British imperial plans for a port at Calcutta. The building of the port recalled an imperial relation to sovereign territory in the 2004 novel was, perhaps in retrospect seems a bit of a tacit critique of the plans for constructing the world’s largest statue, over 182 meters, and 54 meters above the pervious record-holder of the $55 million Spring Temple Buddha in Huenan, China, and uses a 6,500 tonnes of steel around a concrete core to monumentalized a figural symbol of Indian unity, whose cost won much scoffing from local farmers. The image of such monuments to excess seem a clear corollary to the statue of Christopher Columbus that Donald J. Trump was eager to accept from Moscow’s Mayor, who had earlier tried to resolve the site of a work by one of his favorite sculptors of public statuary, for the banks of his unbuilt Hudson River development. While only six feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, it would be magnified by far greater proximity to Manhattan–and be part of the New York skyline.
Was it also a point of entrance of Trump into his authoritarian stage? The monument to patriarchal authority echoes Modi’s statue, but the Russian-made statue that was first made to celebrate the 1492 arrival of Columbus that named America openly recalls an era of mapping when one could lay possession to space in a map–indeed, even to the extent of claiming possession of much of a continent. Its authoritarian image and profile recalls the doctrine of “America First” doctrine that Trump embraced openly when he began his political career; for if the doctrine is based on the exclusion of a foreign “other” perspective, including any migrant–anyone not a member of a clannish nativist white “America”–the statuary of a Columbus stands so oblivious to the other, announcing his arrival as a foundational act of government, in an immobile heroic relation to the land while hailing a New World–captured the rhetoric by which the historical Columbus hailed a new continent as a possession of the Spanish monarchs he announced himself as deputized to take possession of. Perhaps this is an “America First” modeled after the very leaders who created such similar monumental statues of patriarchal authority as Narenda Modi, Kim il-Song and Kim il-Jong, or the subsequent 2016 statue of Prince Vladimir the Great, who united Russia and Ukraine as Orthodox Christian states in 988, bearing a cross, that he presented as founding not only the Kievan Rus, but “moral foundation on which our lives are based.”
As Putin’s namesake Vladimir holds a weighty cross on his shoulder, the statue of Columbus was always an odd gift for a nation separating church and state, as it celebrated the visionary nature of Columbus as a converter of natives, with encoded Christian symbolism in the royal crosses engraved on its billowing sails, as if he were a mythic founder of a state that never existed in America, but would be accepted in the global financial capital where Trump was expanding his promotion of real estate developments to a global scale. The stolid statue of weirdly royalist as much as patriotic ideals seems to have used its Neo-Augustan robes of his monumental bulk both to pose as a new Colossus, akin to the ancient marvel of Rhodes, and to conceal, beneath them, as if under the presence of public duty and patriotic heroism, not only a claim to the supremacy of the white, educated race in the global playing field, but the hope for private gains that led Donald J. Trump to return from Moscow with hopes to build the statue on the Hudson, on a pilot of landfill he was developing near midtown.
The statue strikingly foregrounded a conceptual confusion between public shows of patriotism, rolled out with so much pluck and stagecraft, and the search for private gain, not an eery predecessor and embodiment of what we have come to expect from Trump as United States President? As a Russian doll, as much as a fifteenth-century navigator, the ahistorically dressed navigator, one hand guiding a rotary wheel not used to navigate in 1492, taps a mythistokry to conceal the financial interests of a real estate promoter of newfound global ambitions inside an icon of national prestige.
This autocratic neoclassical Columbus, an unbuilt monument that has not come in for public attack, would have staged an autocratic ideal of government destined for Trump Properties in a Hudson River lot of landfill on Manhattan, looking with thin-lipped autocratic supremacy upstream, as if akin to the Colossus of Rhodes that had indeed been a model for the Statue of Liberty that the Columbus appears designed to surpass in height and monumentality–and whose body was perhaps expanded to ensure its greater height than the iconic Liberty statue given to the United States on the quatricentennary of the Columbian voyage–as if a rejoinder to Liberty Illuminating the World–would have provided an off-kilter rejoinder to the monument to Republicanism. Indeed, if the Statue of Liberty might be seen as an affirmation of Republican values and the rejection of enslavement, sponsored by a French abolitionist who had studied Constitutional Law, who had imagined her holding broken chains in her left hand as well as lifting a torch with her right, the magisterial salute of this Columbus echoed a sovereign relation to the land, although its kitschy visage seems removed from any clear political agenda in its immobile naturalization of authority.
The very Trumpian aspirations to monumentality that had led the realtor to propose hubristically building a Trump International Moscow beside Red Square towering above the Kremlin in 1997, an icon of the Russian capital–perhaps led them to send him home, with the offer of a statue of the navigator Columbus that would be tower above the Statue of Liberty downstream in New York harbor not only in appearance, but actual height. The revelation by Mark Singer that Trump had eagerly entertained if not negotiated the possible arrival of the massive cultic statue forged in Moscow to New York’ s new mayor, Rudy Giuliani, suggesting the “great work” of a Moscow sculptor who he guaranteed was “major and legit”–would be a new Colossus of Rhodes, of sorts, not defending the nation, but a wonder of authority that would surpass his Taj Mahal as a new wonder of the world.
The Columbus in “The Invention of the New World” would be an addition to the building that would supplement its authority, a symbol of a patriarchal order, unlike the figure of Lady Liberty, with whom Trump’s public image as a sovereign ruler has been broadly fraught. The subsequent association of Columbus and white supremacy made the statue a less than desired proposal, and Trump’s eager proposal to erect the monumental statue, five feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, on his properties, went nowhere: if the modern colossus was an emblem of sorts for his new globalist world, the image was animated by monarchical rule, and not by democracy and republicanism, had fell on deaf ears when it was proposed to Presidents George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton, he no doubt felt it could be he a triumph of his own deal-making if built on his private lands
Did he appreciate its political conniptions of using an icon of white supremacy whose objective identification with America had been questioned from 1992? While America has long denied its imperial identity, the statue seemed a bid to recognize it, if it was also a Russian reading celebrating the authoritarian image of the navigator as a figure of state, and a nationalist symbol. The story of this weird fantasy image of Columbus, as a navigator who arrived in a New World in peace, saluting the continent over which he was taking possession in thin-lipped solemnity, was both a kitsch of a monumental who seemed to bear regal insignia around his neck, rose an arm affirmative as an imaginary past of the founding go the nation, as if this monument in bronze would set a precedent for “Make America Great Again”—conjuring the allure of an imaginary past demanding complete the complete assent from observers, as if to allow no possibility of choice for native inhabitants, and to remove a myth of the New World and America from an idea of freedom, more akin to a westward progression of empire, driven by sails decorated by royal crosses of the most Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella, than by recognizably American values. If the notion of a monument-building had long been a sleight of hand, since Theodore Roosevelt transformed the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred to the Sioux, accords to the Sioux in an 1868 treaty to the Sioux in perpetuity, if in fact only until prospectors arrived, as a monument to American empire, named after the general who commanded American soldiers to slaughter unarmed Sioux women, men, and children, by using the sleight of hand of monumentality to transform a sacred site to a massively offensive cultic icon of Presidential supremacy.
If the Roman poet Horace had famously boasted his own writings would outlast monuments in bronze in the Augustan era, in an age when writings on papyri were imagined less durable than epigraphic inscriptions in stone, the bronze monument whose imperial relation to space mediates a tradition of Augustan statuary in kitsch. And if Horace seems to have punctured Augustan vanity by identifying his poetry as a testament outlasting monuments of bronze or pyramids, displacing the written object by a new language of monumentality fitting a man with global aspirations.
The colossus Trump sough to erect on his property at tax payers’ expense was presented as a gift from the Russian people, although it was rejected as a Soviet gift for the quincentennial celebrations of Columbus. The new version would be, of course, something of a monument to his vanity, and it occluded personal and national interests in a way that prefigured the Trump Presidency, if its construction predated Trump’s political aspirations by a few years. He had recently poured money into boondoggles–the Taj Mahal built in Atlantic City for $1.2 billion in 1990, promoted as “the eighth wonder of the world,” but the 360-foot bronze statue of Columbus seemed a way to use Russian donation to promote his own public prominence in Manhattan, as if it would restore his public citizenship in New York, if it was a quite kitschy image of the navigator as a Renaissance hero, transcending the very masted craft representing the Santa Maria, as if a statement to his global grandiosity. The “Birth of the New World” was never built near New York, but was erected in time for Trump’s inauguration as the tallest statue in the Americas, although the monolith known locally as “La Estatua de Colón” is located at the edges of American territoriality, on the island of Puerto Rico, where it packs less punch as a celebration of the navigator as a discoverer, after resting in an abandoned factory for years in Cataño, PR.
Back in 1893, visitors to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL could enjoy entering a replica of the ship, which had itself sailed across the Atlantic from Spain, entering it as a tourist attraction. The show was the third American iteration of a “World’s Fair” tradition, but in celebrating the navigator who traversed the seas as a home-grown version of globalism, it cast the globalism of worlds fair traditions that had begun in the Crystal Palace in an American idiom of Manifest Destiny-with a large water pool that represented the transatlantic voyage of the fifteenth century navigator, in a replica of the caravel similar to the skiff in which the new statue of the navigator stood–
–amidst the neoclassical buildings of the Exposition that were called a “White City,” in an exposition that notoriously excluded figures of African Americans, but boasted a range of ethnographic villages.
Larger than life, mounted on a similar boat, the bronze Columbus of 300 meters in height majestically surveying the shore of Arecibo in Puerto Rico where it now stands, addressing no one, its sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, impatient at the refusal to erect the statue in the many American cities to whom it had been offered–first New York, where it was to be built on the premises of a luxury development entrepreneur Donald Trump promoted on the Hudson River, where Trump crowed Zurab “wanted to have it built.”
The many stories of the monstrosity have perhaps detracted attention from what it would have looked at on the Hudson River, or the hubris with which Trump invited or solicited the offer as a cementing of friendship with the post-Soviet elites as he sought to build a Trump Tower Moscow in 1997.
The monumental statue concealing the act of dispossession of native lands seem to have appealed to Trump, and not only because the six hundred ton statue that Donald Trump hoped would promote his latest luxury housing enclave. If the statue is ridiculously ahistorical, planned for a place the fifteenth century navigator never arrived holding navigational tools he never used, the 6,500 tons of sub-export bronze almost erected on the banks of the Hudson River, selected as the site to be “gifted” by Russian oligarchs who had long globally peddled a massive statuary two American presidents had demurred, probably both an aesthetic grounds and for its autocratic form, an imaginary of conquest almost foreign to Columbian iconography.
If all maps freeze cruel dialectics of power and inequality, the image of Columbus, arm on a rotary nautical wheel not used on his transatlantic voyage, suggested a poetics of dispossession that was broadly revisited in the United States at this very time. Although the statue would be adopted as an icon of the “anti-Christopher Columbus attacks from the political left wing in America,” as if facing threats of a desecration of models of heroism, the totem to Columbus that defined the taboo nature of expanding political discourse to critique Columbus’s historical identity, the endurance of the massive sculpture “Discovery of the New World” in Arecibo recapitulated a logic of discovery: even as the liabilities for disaster approached $50 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget, did the town ever consider melting down the 6,500 tons of bronze to recoup their monetary value?
Columbus had become something of a trope or specialty of monumental sculpture that Tsereteli had adopted in the 1990s, at a moment when increased questioning of the iconic nature of the navigator had begun to grow. While the unpaid import taxes on the massive bronze monument had caused it to languish in the harbor, it formed part of a range of massive sculptures of the navigator from Tsereteli’s productive studios, more kitsch than national icons, but that provided an odd tail-end to the construction of Columbus monuments around the world, as if to recuperate a tired tradition of monumentality for an audience it had trouble finding. Completed from the pieces stored in the factory in 2017, after it had been rejected as a monument suitable for the 2010 Central American and Caribbean games, and not erected on the Mayagüez coastline; it was also rejected as a project suitable for the cities of Baltimore, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, or Columbus, Ohio, the ghosted monument finally found a home–after import taxes were resolved–although it is difficult to balance the aesthetic ugliness of the monument with the charged subject matter of glorifying a navigator who had been increasingly out of synch with a global map, if not purged from its surface.
As kitsch as the surface of the Columbus colossus is, hopes of eredting the monument on the Hudson suggested an overlapping of spatial imaginaries that demand to be untangled. The retrospective glorification of the fifteenth century Genoese navigator was in the end less easily aptly situated as a global hero on the coast of the impoverished island, raises questions of the how Trump desired the coastal monument on his properties, imagining it as an icon for Trump International as his real estate business sought to expand beyond New York City to boost its fortune. Did he propose it as an option to a sculptor who was still searching for a home for his bronze statue, in storage in Puerto Rico, and gathering dust, when Trump saw the somewhat smaller statue on the Volga for which it was the prototype? If the monument to Peter the Great installed in 1997 to commorate the foundation of the “navy” in 1693 of Russia’s first Emperor was only , the statue since planned to be relocated to Leningrad, Archangelsk (Russia’s only port city), or Petrazavodsk, is but a third as tall–ninety eight meters–but towers above Moscow above the city’s architecture as monumentally as allowed. Yet the the attempt to rehabilitate Columbus as an icon of globalism that restored post-Soviet-American ties was imagined by Trump as a means to confirm his fantasy of his new global profile, as it was entertained by Moscow’s elite to be seen as a symbol of friendship and a new world order.
If the global map seemed apt as an icon of the voyage of Columbus on the obverse of the coin minted in the fourth centenary in 1893,
–the tired trope of the monument glorifying the navigator was adopted wholesale by Trump, as he sought a new, global icon of his ambitions, conflating his business interests with the apparently abandoned icon that Tsereteli’s prowess had so awfully embodied, a new image of a new Stalin, that had served so appropriately to embody–as Tsereteli remained unhappy with the lack of a site for his statuary that he has promoted globally–with a decisively smaller Moscow monument, of Peter the Great (1672-1725), that commemorated the three-hundredth anniversary of founding Russia’s Navy, and triumphal naval mission to Ukraine down the Volga. As the “Mother Volga” that ran to the Caspian Sea was long a symbol for Russian unification Peter the Great championed–“Mighty stream, so deep and so wide, Volga, Volga, our pride“–and a symbol of Russian modernization, and consolidation of the Baltics and of Crimea, the statue erected in Moscow in the very year of Trump’s visit to search sites for a Trump Tower–1997–and may have led him to propose placing the Columbus colossus on the Hudson.
Although ships are hardly models of navigation or exploration, the evocation of an era of conquest, navigation, and the decisive expansion of borders that the Peter the Great statue celebrated in all its kitsch was itself a bizarre step-child of a triumphal image of global networks that referenced not only the Columbian Exposition, but as well as recuperating an image of supremacy mapped Donald Trump at the expansion of Russia’s global role.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!