Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

40 The CDC issues maps have remained curtailed, if not outdated, images of the spread of a disease whose continuities we do not understand, but may insist on distorting. If the only COVID-19 narrative available is one of terror, at least the scale is right–it is suitably global and while global, the narrative is human in scale in the sense that it invites us to place ourselves in relation to its content in a way that is future-oriented and looking. The map is one of wrestling with the rates of doubling and tripling of cases of infection, but is also about the success of projects of social distancing, and isolation or sheltering at home, that have proved successful in flattening the curve or trying to, as we look at the new hotspots that need to be monitored in a global world.

There are, as well, ways of drilling down to such logics of mapping in a meaningful regional ways, and trying to focus on the devastation of the virus than the new relation to nature, space, and place that the virus’ spread suggests. For the rates of doubling are a great proxy for flattening the curve of the possibilities of containment, and the danger of new hot spots emerging, as they will, that are in need of containment, as the virus is finding more hosts in Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming–a state where social distancing has been spectacularly ineffective and unaccepted–lest we focus only on the maps of mortality that make it seem like the nation is weighted down in the northeast.

Particularly scary is the rapidity of number of the doubling of contracted COVID-19 cases of infection in cycles that are poorly served by medical care, with a poor choice of health insurers or care exchanges in counties–in Arizona, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Utah, as well as rural Washington.

70% of Counties in America Facing Limited Choice of Health Insurance
Regions with Rates of Poverty and Medically Uninsured of 10% (tan) and 12% (brown)
New York Times, 2013

For if it is weighted down in the northeast, the map reminds us of the need, which the CDC was too hampered to serve us well, in offering the best counts and tallies of the progress of SARS-CoV-2 in the initial sites of infection, and the promotion of false illusions of imperviousness that the very dangerous bad news sources–by the real “fake news” purveyors– placing us all in the worst relation possible to the virus’ spread by bad data. If there is a blind trust in the numbers provided by data counts, bad data was meaningless save to ensure that thee nation was poorly prepared and resources inadequate to contain COVID-19’s inevitable spread across the nation. The false self assurances of security that ask us to subtract ourselves with unwanted degrees of confidence to confront the outbreaks of infection that already expanded, by ignoring any tally of how the novel coronavirus was contracted, treating it as a partisan effort at shifting the focus of public debate from our unwarranted sense of expanded national security that promoted dangerous natural divides.

Was FOX enlisted to downplay the impact of the Coronavirus, or was Sean Hannity sufficiently tied into the Trump’s party line?

We have maps that might deter the spread of the novel coronavirus that had already arrived at our shores, by placing our sense of human agency in relation to the spread of infections that they describe, beyond the logid of case counts that are so imposing, which not only broke thresholds in ways that the initial predictions little prepared us to accept as a health emergency.

The sheer numbers blinded us to sites of tracking the sites of the spread of contagion and infection where distancing is difficult to achieve–often the very institutions that have come under funding problems, the “total institutions” of nursing homes, prisons, refugee camps among them–where the spread of the contagion may still begin to spike. Other sites of danger of contraction and transmission, often in the very sites that were deemed “essential” businesses–large megastores of groceries as Trader Joe’s in Scarsdale, NY, and Walmart in Chicago, IL, the potential of protracted exposure to the virus among grocery store workers who are often working longer hours overtime, to keep up with demand, working without sufficient protective gears, suggesting a spike in workplace deaths of workers paid minimum wage with limited health insurance. (Lack of accord to use new bags, and suspend stipulations of reusable cloth bags, is an identified risk of transmitting the infectious viral disease, among other”high contact” areas from check-out registers, conveyor belts, grocery carts, food scanners, and ATM screens, and the insufficient guarantee of preventing viral transmission by hand sanitizer alone, and need for hospital-grade disinfectant, or disinfection soap.)

We have developed little awareness of the vectors of transmission even after four months of preparation.

Terrifyingly, from the very sites of agricultural work where vulnerable populations are less able to sequester voluntarily or self-isolate, from the Central Valley to the Mississippi to the plains, where shelter-at-home policies are problematic, seem to be seeing quickest rates of infections doubling, which demand to be placed on our radar for the future, if it is not hard to see others, like the spread of cases in Florida,–whose inexperienced young governor, long refused accepting or issuing shelter-at-home directives, or New Mexico. (Florida’s governor engaged in a bizarre dance with White House health authorities who resisted compelling a policy that would clearly have been most prudent for his state, which seems a new hotspot that is destined to grab headlines in a future news cycle.)

We lacked much of a medial narrative, save an apocalyptic one, while we counted cumulative deaths and illnesses–tallies that are impressive, and overwhelm, but are perhaps so overwhelming that they conjure cinematic narratives and video games or narratives of dystopia–rather than helping to process a reaction to the often deadly disease’s spread.

Why were the search for narrative contexts of this new global pandemic so necessary? Not only because we had not experienced it, but as we seemed to need fiction to navigate the surreality of the experience of a pandemic we had only seem on the silver screen or flat screen TV. We had indeed seen it a lot on the screen, and images of global disaster that were available on Amazon and Netflix spiked, as we sought to find narratives that were absent from the maps we saw. The choropleths tabulating cumulative tallies of disease and death–even if they were all likely serious undercounts–presented almost nothing to hold onto or process.

We are haunted by images of mortality and dystopia, dislodged from any narrative we can grasp. Struck by the familiarity of CDC recommendations for hand-washing and social distancing we turned collectively, perhaps, or instinctually, seeking to embed them in a narrative, to the fifteen year old film, Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion”–one of the most-watched films that jumped high on Netflix as folks sought to process their reactions to the novel coronavirus’ spread–and we turned to books like Camus’ Plague, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, or went back to classics like the Decameron, a set of stories told among friends during the plague. Or, searching for the newly discovered genre of “quarantine readings” as we decided to hunker down in blue-state lockdown, turning to books we always wanted that seemed to console–Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, Ishiguro’s Unconsoled, that occupied our attention–or indulge in full-blown alternate cosmologies from Samuel Delany’s Dahlgren, or, why not, Proust, as the narrative was just so absent and so deeply terrifying to contemplate for those who depended on narratives.

But it may be good to admit that our poetic powers are lacking: they need to sustain a fiction of familiarity in a disjointed time. (I turned to the paranoia of Kafka’s isolated if hypersensitive mole, exploring the underground shelter he dug, in “The Burrow,” following the painstaking care with which he navigates the chambers of the trenches where he dwells, agitated by anxieties about the source of noises emanating from its walls, digging further into the earth, considering possible sources of the loudness of the eery noise, distracted, exploring his labyrinth, puzzling at unreflective “small fry” who dig in the soil only for the sake of digging. That story, questioning the ability of reflection, and the mentally corrosive effects of paranoia, in exquisites beauty, seemed consolation. His isolation reflected our own, and his panic at trying to judge the data of muted cries that resonated in the earthen walls, thrown into confusion at hearing a noise, and then trying to gain bearing on the noise, ear fixed on the wall, as if to express his own inner state. of agitation, more than gain better understanding of his situation.

41. We can forget amid the fears of managing the infection’s spread we have also been for some time living through successive apocalyptic scenarios, of which this was only the latest. We have perhaps been living for some time in what Jon Kabat Zinn terms “full catastrophe living”–in response to which, in ways, COVID-19 is only the latest confirmation that we need mindfulness “more than ever” and that a full catastrophe era is here to stay. For “Full Catastrophe Living” descries the need fora greater sense of consciousness, and being rooted in rhythms not able to be shoked by the stress created by a confusion or overlapping of the local and global. The apprehension of such global stressors suddenly made sense to Kabat-Zinn as potential vectors of psychic distrubance, when as an MIT graduate study in molecular biology, when he responded to growing sense of the stresses of increasing global dangers of increased pollution and global degradation by a cultivation of mindfulness.

The role of meditation and was, as always, not “relaxation,” as some at branded Buddhism, but rather the cultivation of an attentive focus to moving through he world by what he termed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), to counter the impression of impending stress from the cocktail of population rise, global pollution, and sustainability–a course of therapy to address such chronic stresses destined to have global impact of planetary scope.

The global pandemic of COVID-19 is a sight of global stress that has revealed vulnerability of access to health care and well-being–topics of importance to Kabat-Zinn–thrown into relief across multiple fault lines in populations and states. “Full Catastrophe Living” responds well to the augmented stress of daily live, the onslaught of uncertainty that for Zinn was not only interior, but linked to the environment and the radical e of environmental change in which it was born–albeit an uncertainty predating anthropogenic dimensions of climate change, racial consequences of pollution, or rapid pace among movements between disaster, that mark global change and do not allow a place of resting between breaths: “full catastrophe living” is guarding the self, but destabilization of the relation of self and environment. COVID-19 permits a sense of breathing as an act of resistance affirming our continued vitality in the face of an infection that takes its seats in our lungs, ability to be present gaining growing significance during the virus’ spread, breathing provides a special sort of bearing testimony to resistance.

The increasing importance of mindfulness as a model of stress reduction that Kabat Zinn has described as unimaginably accelerated by the uncertainty and duress of COVID-19 were long anticipated by a disruptive changes of man-made origin. Is it any surprise that nearly 21,000 signed up to meditate on the importance of mindfulness to survival that was organized as COVID-19 spread to all fifty states? The guided meditation with Kabat Zinn reminded us of the centrality of meditation to survival at what was the heigh of uncertainty, and seemed to have been organized with urgency as the pandemic was declared as global. While President Trump cognitively balked, irresponsibly dragging his feet in declaring a National Emergency, no guidelines for the situation emerged beyond a limp endorsement of social distancing; the need for Full Catastrophe Living seemed acute. “Life on this planet,” Kabat Zinn has said, became the real meditation retreat that demanded we develop our relation to it, and nowhere more than a global pandemic is the ultimate stress test.

To some extent, recent pandemics preceding the need for social distancing. The disruptions were anticipated in such climate change disasters from the recurrent fires in California and the destruction of the underbrush in Australia, fires called “wild,” mistakenly and a bit arrogantly, earthquakes that destroy poorly built factories that house workers who crowd them, hurricanes of new levels of destructiveness in areas of groundsoil impermeability, tsunami whose waters breach cooling waters of reactors in Fukushima-Daichi, and widespread coastal erosion and predicted retreat. The pace of the onslaught of changes is one in which we lack orientation on the growth of global displacement of refugees, and global uncertainty of future groundwater capacity, as our footprint stretches far beyond the size of the aquifers–and major cities in India are posed to exhaust groundwater supplies shortages.

But the need to restrict the intersection of social spaces, so pronounced in cities, but also in social life, has come to offer the best form to contain the virus’ spread in ways that seem to cut at our own sense of autonomy. So why focus on the breath? The breath is not only a centering of our own abilities of autonomy, but an assertion of the space around us and our control over it in riding the flows of breath we are able to concentrate; centering is perhaps the best way not to lose mind and heart when we need them both most, as Kabat Zinn might say: but the way that distancing expresses a radical shared sense of humanity by preventing the pandemic’s spread, as a way of working into a new state of being, exists on a collective level that it has never been so drastically the case before.

Nowhere is the sense of rapid, drastic change more apparent than in the invisible diffusion of the contraction of viruses that block breathing in our respiratory tracts, and the possibility of transformation that isolation might achieve, if we hope to continue to contain the virus’ spread. But enough of meditation. The onslaught of current pandemics constitute a threshold of full catastrophe living Kabat Zinn couldn’t predict, but are analogies to the sense of global emergency he feared. The acronymic pandemics–AIDS, SARS, H1N1, MERS, as well as Ebola–have already recurred with terrifying regularity, foreshadowing COVID-19’s ravaging of our lungs and lives. In returning amidst their onslaught to the breath as a continued foundation of awareness, it might be in the stability and support breathing offers through each traumatic wave we are experiencing with increasing rapidity. True, Full Catastrophe Living was a model for the scenarios of climate change and the pace of disaster, born for an era of the stresses of overpopulation and increased pollution that is in part its consequence.

For Kabat Zinn, the simple practice, not in fact so simple as an act of concentration, of tracking the breath as it fills the lungs, even as we do so, we gain a sense of strength in that moment, after expelling air from the lungs where the pathogen might settle, provided a bit of stability from the sort of onslaught and rapid change it poses, and will inevitably bring. A return to the regularity of the breath offers focus on our agency during such truly catastrophic scenarios where we can recognize little of ourselves, and maintaining a sane distance from them, as they dominate our thoughts; the current catastrophe that attacks the very seats of the breath may be something we might continue to navigate with a sense of stability, where stability or perspective are in increasingly short supply–if only to remind us of the preciousness of the breath in that moment.

And Full Catastrophe Living has its own rich history. A far younger Jon Kabat found in the breath a basis of promoting an exercise of centering the arrival of anthropogenic climate change and overuse of natural resources that are the foundation of the “full-catastrophe living” today, not knowing that the catastrophe would include the collapse of the life-giving lungs, and constriction of the breath with loss of parts of them, that allow us o track the waves of the breath as a reminder of stability. The threshold of the very “full catastrophe living” are the extension of the global changes Kabat-Zinn first apprehended as imminent while an MIT undergraduate back in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, in 1969 seeing escalating rates of population and pollution as two barometers of catastrophe, amidst SDS and LSD while at MIT, the curves that would determine a loss of mind, the new anthropogenic scissors of a new Malthus, finding how both looming at full scale at a “unique point in history” he predicted an imminent era of “an ego disaster of major proportions–over-population, pollution of every conceivable kind, including mental,” out of “Avengers: Infinity Wars.”

42. The fears of a heightened Sturm und Drang was not limited to MIT. The very same years were haunted by images of lost mankind, akin to the climactic concluding shot of the 1968 movie “Planet of the Apes,” immediately registered as an iconic final tableau of a lost human world, famous for witnessing ruins of American civilization, such as it is, had vanished, Ozymandias-like, into sands–having survived for two thousand years in a landscape where it is transformed in an immediately affecting theater to an ancient ruin.

Final Frames, Planet of the Apes, 1969

The recognition moment at the film’s final sequence that this is actually not science fiction, but a future, or a dystopian future that we are hurling toward, anticipates the unfolding of future storylines in multiple sequels that were consumed globally and in multiple media in the 1970s. But the retrospective sense of recognition of the scene with the sand-buried Liberty statue before which Charleton Heston screams, accusatorially, “You . . . finally did it! You MANIACS! You blew it up—damn you!–dam you all to hell!” provided the only fit conclusion for the film in 3978, railing against the loss and stupidity of human society on Malibu Beach, railing against human stupidity and society, facing what was really revealed as the unrecognizable ruins of a ruined future Manhattan island, now a cross between a Wild West and a lunar landscape, if one where corn fields were planted in the new plantation society that enslaved humans work, and that is the future world. Perhaps there is no better place than Malibu Beach to cry, facing the ruins buried in sands, and rail against the world–and became the movie’s most recognizable iconic image of fear.

The novel itself, written during the aftermath of racialized violence of the Algerian War by former foreign service agent Pierre Boulle, may mark the start of Full Catastrophe Living: Boulle had witnessed Full Catastrophe Living in Indochina and Burma, already dramatized in “Bridge over the River Kwai,” for American audiences; might French readers have been unable to read the novel through the lens of the bitter, cruel, war in Algeria and the Referendum for Algerian Independence adopted only a year previous to the novel’s publication? The fears of enslavement of whites that the novel conjured was barely disguised.

The inversion of the cruelest Enlightenment racialized epithets of animality in the society of intelligent apes who cage humans translated perfectly to America in 1968. Boulle’s 1963 novel imagines an astronaut, Ullysse, as a travel of discovery on a 2055 space journey that takes him to a future planet, where he is captured and immediately placed in a cage by simians who compel humans to mate; the film foregrounds the trip as inversting earth’s social order, an earth, suicidally abandoned by humans who have reverted into primitively’ clad clans–the new plantation system in the future was imagined in the scene of arrival at the ruins of the iconic Statue of Liberty, in a scene filmed in corn-fields, not existing by the Pacific coast, but planted specially for the film for the horseback-riding astronaut to pass, where white Anglo field workers are supervised by Apes, who caution the astronaut not to proceed into the Forbidden Zone by the shore. The novel that was translated as an anti-Enlightenment treatise, undoubtedly tied to the Algerian war, was never imprisoned by the Japanese, or indeed participated in space-travel projects, but as he had enlisted in the Gullist army in Singapore and French Indochina, was imprisoned in Hanoi and Saigon by Vichy loyalists, keeping a careful diary of his incarceration, before joining British Special Forces, and as his parable on the brutality of incarceration shaped his first and second novels, channled Poe and Voltaire in questioning the superiority men claim over animals, the tragedy of a loss of humanity that was foregrounded in the film suggested not the technological advances able to be imagined for a planet of apes, but the tragedy of man’s loss of civilization–and the catastrophe that proceeded a planet ruled by apes.

Full Catastrophe Living was already present in the global awareness of the destruction of Hiroshima by atomic blasts navigated at first hand by the director of a local hospital, Dr Michihiko Hachiya. Hachiya combined clincal observations of patients and friends’ bodies with his navigation of the bombed city, giving a sense of making time each day to record compassionate entries, even as he attended to effects of radiation illness in his own body’s changes in over a hundred and fifty scares. The account of attending and trying to assemble the devastation of the city, as director of the Hiroshima Communications Hospital, attend to the post-atomic landscape it maps; it hints at a new level of competency of orienting oneself to an environment of severe dislocation and stress over two months. In orientind to orient himself in the new landscape of devastating loss, where his face and body with over one hundred and fifty scars, in a destroyed physical landscape that had opened lingering death and bereavement, surveying the devastated city through shattered hospital windows of a blast that killed his friends and patients died open a landscape of catastrophe living of peculiar fragility; his account was an on the ground version of the reportage of John Hersey of the same American aerial bombing raid; or Kurt Vonnegut’s first hand account of the surreal nature of Dresden’s firebombing, towers of smoke and flame airplanes delivered to the already devastated population, lives warped by the cruelty vanity of Nazi ideology and dogma that had warped Germany, Vonnegut only emerging from a meat locker three floors underground.

The American soldier and prison of war, Kurt Vonnegut, was shielded in a meat locker three stories underground among animal carcasses. He exited it without any way to discuss the massacre except to listen to the birds, and measured how the cataclysm disrupted all narrative structure, and left him without one, for over twenty years, when he revisited the still largely destroyed city in 1965, just a few years before Kabat Zinn first launched the Center for Stress Reduction at Boston General Hospital.

Dresden’s compelling scenario of devastation was returned to twenty years later by Vonnegut, and gained immediate resonance in the Vietnam War; the firebombing seemingly confirm the horrific scale of a home-grown catastrophe: American airplanes rehearsed the fire-bombing on fake cities in the Nevada desert had, after all, and had exposed half a million Americans to radiation whose effects still lingered, even as Americans were bombing the Mekong Delta and firebombing Hanoi.

Removal of Bomb Debris circa 1952, fifteen years before Vonnegut returned to visit in 1967

Kabat Zinn’s term”full catastrophe living” vividly recalls comic books more than mindfulness or the need for focussing on the foundation of the breath. The proportions of “full catastrophe living” that express a scale and proportions that we probably do not know save in comic books, or the concluding cinematic tableau as the curtain falls on Charlton Heston, pounding the sand off of Malibu circa 1968 that was so haunting. So returning to the breath, to gain some sense of stability before such radical change, may well have provided the only path ahead.

The image of the destroyed icon that was gifted to the United States from France in 1889 as a commemoration of the global rise of Republicanism, or an auspicious hope for its global victory, the metal monument of the Roman goddess Liberty of Frederic Bartholdi, “Liberty Enlightening the World,” seemed a fit image for dystopia. It was hardly a coincidence, given he film’s huge popularity, that the book it dramatized so vividly had been optioned by DC Comics, desperate for new compelling material in the heightened war for larger comic book audiences.

The hopeful DC publishers had, of course, invited storied comic artist Jack Kirby to exercise rights to the intellectual property after he joined DC: and “King” Kirby resurrected his 1958 cave-boy named Kamandi for a new phantasmagoric dystopian scenario, amping up the drama of the cinematic still of a film (which he hadn’t already seen) with customary florid theatricality of “full disaster living,” in Kirby-esque phantasmagoria framing the fate of the “Last Boy on Earth” by a tilted Statue of Liberty reduced to crumbling sandstone askew in waves, and a relic of the ruined Empire State Building, transformed into narrows through which the hero imperiously perilously navigates. He seems, now, to navigate risen ocean waters anticipating climate change on an inflated raft, recalling a Mediterranean refugee; he is seeking who knows what with newfound grim determination, as if with a map for full catastrophe living.

Kirby’s electrifying full-color cover was sensational: it grimly lured readers into a dystopia where “beasts act like men, and men act like beasts,” in 1972, just four years after the cinematic recognition scene asked audiences to process the ruins statue buried up to her waist in sands, to calibrate the distance of an era of good government, and wonder how the world had been in fact transformed. The rust-covered Kirby version of the metal statue was flooded in waters up to the hemline of her neoclassical robes, riddle with fault-lines that suggested her new fragility, the tabula ansata imitating Roman votive tables, once inscribed JULY IV MDCCLXXVI (July 4, 1776) now erased–leaving the statue almost meaningless to Kamandi, who navigated between it and the Empire State building with a deeper mission of survival in a new world.

Kirby’s Statue of Liberty looks more like an ancient ruin, and fits a narrative of sea-level rise. Did Kamandi–or Kirby? or Kabat Zinn?–have a real map for Full Catastrophe Living?


Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics

2 responses to “Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

  1. Rachel brownstein

    It is amazing that his response is to close the borders. Has to be something weirder than denial, as you suggest. Border closing as both cause and “cure”.

    • The denial seems cognitive, but inability to acknowledge the responsibility of governments suggests a stunning lack of prioritizing public health safety. The script of demonizing foreign countries was on auto loop, and the world will suffer!

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