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.
Trump is fond of using military metaphors of describing the coronavirus as a war, but was reluctant to ensure statistical datasets central to how military mapping tools provided a new sense of regarding the legibility of a map as a public repository of meaning, in earlier disease maps, to articulate arguments about the public good: growing levels of the public tabulation of mortalities linked to specific causes of death and their locations in a city provided a manner to present maps as a way to confront an epidemic such as cholera on a massive scale. Its paths of infection were the subject of the famous medical map by Dr. John Snow’s map, that south to present data to doctors as a way to embody the disease in clear cognitive terms, and rebut the theory of infection by effluvia as “Asiatic cholera” was transmitted in London, from “pollution” that was inherent in water,–here also shown in bars in relation to pumps–
unlike the images of miasmatic infection spreading into low-lying areas from the River Thames to congested areas overcrowded with London poor–
–if we were not worried by miasma transmitted among the crowding of the urban poor from effluvia emanating from river Thames, spread by endemic absence of cleanliness among urban poor and laboring classes, we were hardly able to process the spread of COVID-19, rules of its containment. We watched waves of mortality, mostly focussed in cities like New York, but already by February 15, before Trump made any announcement save a denying entry of ships carrying COVID patients in the US territory of Guam, as the Philippines, Taiwan, Jamaica, and the Grand Cayman Islands–outbreaks of infections had blossomed in the United States.
We possess limited statistics, alas, to track the pandemic whose airborne transmission is not easily mapped by analogy to flu, and whose mutations seem of different levels of danger–and interact with different morbidities, wiping out many older populations as seen in northern Italy–over a quarter being elderly in Lombardy, which has the highest elderly dependency ratio among developed countries–and even more in the populations of the institutionalized in prisons, old age homes, hospitals, and internment camps. The amazingly detailed county-based counts of cases and testing that are daily tabulated for the country provide alternative views of looking at risk, but we perhaps payed less attention to the routes of transmission, and had little evidence from which to work, with limited testing being performed, and few testing facilities able to process the complex tests of swabbed samples, despite the readiness of our nation to on-site on-demand service.
Despite the adequacy of our point-based mapping skills, we may be distracted by the flies of dots of mortality and infection rates, in large part as fear of providing too many tests might fan the flames of insecurity, it seems, as widespread testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets. As a result, we 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 spread of the highly contagious pandemic.
We need a far finer-grained map of the country, whose layers called attention to the dangers of places where social distancing is not easy to maintain–like ocean liners, Wuhan markets, urban areas more crowded, and with less access to open space. It increasingly seems that the uneven geography to which the choropleths we have inherited from old models of data visualization are spectacularly blind from levels of class, uneven health care, exposure to pollution or overcrowded living conditions, that they, indeed, seem to naturalize in their appeal to a miasmatic notion of disease transmission or effluvia–common to many of the first statitistical data visualizations of cholera, like the London maps developed by Richard Grainger, and Dr. John Snow. The uneven geography of the nation should not be bleached from our own choropleths in an attempt to explain or communicate the topography of infection that is increasingly apparent. It was clear that Trump was little interested in testing or counts, from prohibiting ships with passengers were infected with coronavirus to dock, to insisting the count of fifteen infections would soon decline–rather than grow from twenty-one to the thousands and beyond two million.
The strong correlation between a lack of increased testing has led by May to a rise of positive cases that far outstripped testing rates, as a near tripling of positive cases in Texas, or the almost fourfold growth of cases in Florida–where positive cases grew over 340%, per the COVID Tracking Project, or Arizona (where positive cases grew sevenfold) suggests how failure for testing has permitted infectious spread to grow unmonitored in a massive failure of public health oversight. Although it is clear closures of school can delay epidemic spread, reducing “peak incidence” up to 60%, the benefits of eliminating the contact network of populations was sacrificed long after the national emergency was declared, as undetected infections were many times greater than confirmed cases. But the closure of all schools in twenty-three states by the second weekend of April curtailed the school year, upending grading policies, assignments, and exams, that upended any interactive learning experiences as all activities migrated online into virtual form, as the nation hunkered down without retooling graduation or educational guidelines but suspending instructional hours, educational resources or support for the remainder of the year.
Yet if school closures make sense as an initial phase of mitigation and containment, it is very possible we were past that stage by March 1, and have grown far beyond it now. Even at that point, he situation was, of course, unprecedented–and the scale of infections extended far beyond what was officially registered.
As pediatricians increasingly call for the importance of children returning to on-site education in schools, coronavirus notwithstanding, stressing the demonstrated “importance of in-person learning” as both well-documented and endangering adverse impacts in the long term that outweigh the fear of spreading coronavirus infection, pediatricians have taken stock of the increased health risks of sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal thoughts during the domestic confinement of coronavirus as itself a mortality risk for adolescents and children, transcending educational impact–we are indeed in uncharted territory. While these increasingly evident risks are apparent, it makes sense to review the shortsightedness of school closures, and the degree to which they most pronouncedly placed poorer students, students of color, and disadvantaged, including homeless, at risk, both as they rely on a range of school services that public schools provide to many. The only mitigating factor may be the massive allocation of a needed $245 billion to reopen school doors in a safe manner-and the danger of finding these funds at a time of increased national needs and a global economic slump. Will we ever have the schools we once so undervalued? While it makes sense the Trump valued education little, the decision to shutter schools that governors widely adopted, and school boards initiated in many states, may be bearing clear costs that only remind us of the absence of clear governance.
To be sure, increased perception of a lack of governance is apparent in the viral bubbling over evident in the multiplication of contraction far beyond the initial “hot-spots” of the nation–New York, Seattle, the Bay Area–was by March 1 already evident, if we only suspected the extensiveness of viral spread and susceptibility at that time. While Trump’s Vice President assured governors that marital increases in local counts were only due to “the magnitude of increase in testing,” as if training them in statistical interpretation. The actual status of undetected viral infections is suggested in the increased static that overlapped the nation’s boundaries, in this still of animated map stamped March 1, based on epidemiological modeling by Alessandro Vespignani’s lab–as the dean of Yale’s School of Public Health corrected Vice President Pence’s assuring words, “The tip of an iceberg can’t be growing with the iceberg shrinking” lest it violate the rules of oceanography and physics: but the anti-science rhetoric of Trump’s team seems to have distorted the nationalistic terms the President sought to interpret the virus’ spread, or the rosy economic lenses he used to try to steer public opinion without tracking contagion, promoting slogans as “Stay Healthy, Return Smarter, Return Stronger,” while numbers of infections escalated in States who did not enforce distancing guidelines.
The escalating rate infections was only made grimmer by President Trump’s spin that there was no need to test for the spread of the novel coronavirus, lest figures of its spread make the nation look bad–although this was the basic playbook of vigilance and containment before a pandemic. Did he seek to massage data to create a good image, more than rely on it to register a new reality, or just not pay attention? The national disconnect was profound: states lacked guidelines from the top, and faced an implosion of public authority, even as infection rates multiplied, and multiplied beyond the figures we had. President Trump continues to reject CDC guidelines for safely reopening the country of which he is nominally chief executive, as hie is more comfortable seeing the virus’ spread in terms of global war, and has adopted a range of dissonant strategies form issuing distorting statements about a remedy, and assuring the virus’ immanent waning to trying to locate danger outside our borders, rather than within it, as if it were a political football he could map without any evidence.
Trump has oddly embraced in dissonant terms a globalist interpretation for a virus “inflicted on the USA and the rest of the world” to cast COVID-19 as an actual war on our borders, without adopting coherent strategies of containment. The alt right Florida Representative charged a Chinese Scientific institute “may have birthed a monster” or the novel coronavirus,–debasing its research in the anti-globalist rhetoric, as Trump described the virus as “inflicted on the USA and the rest of the World,” questioning the accuracy of mortality counts as staff members queried the accuracy of figures as due to “lack of uniform standards in the United States or internationally” to undercut World health Organization tallies–or stating exculpatoritly that “America’s out of practice of how to deal with something like this and to report it accurately”– as if a similar pandemic had ever occurred. Bu t the notion of such an alleged global war rejected divisions increasingly evident in domestic space.
The marginalization of populations who were protesting in cities across the nation suggest an oddly unified front of intensified policing in the Age of COVID–even as such tactics increased chances the virus’ spread. We have suspended any sense that school re-openings are to be slate for any time soon, and cannot imagine what schools will look like in the future, as local school boards feel compelled to confront issues of life and death, suddenly, as if every decision is weighing the lives of others, as if in an ultimate incarnation of his absence of empathy or inability to feel the nation’s increasingly evident suffering and pain–or the domestic arrival of what he continued to cast as a foreign invasion, as if military terms were adequate to manage domestic health policy.
The closure of schools that were quite mechanically and rather quietly adopted as an improvised measure of distancing, designed to limit social networks from communicating viral spread, even before a National Emergency was formally declared, proved a basis to contain viral spread. The broad adoption of school closure as a means of containment concealed a complicated calculus of school closure, negotiated across states and local exigencies, rather than a national level. They also concealed the troubling discrepancies that infection rates portrayed of the a society far more riven by injustices of health care, insurance, and medical attention than one would want to acknowledge.
As the fear of an airborne virus like SARS led to the prioritizing of closing schools as a primary Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention (NPI), the spread of school closures during March may have provided the first and only national effort at mitigating the spread of the highly infectious novel coronavirus. School closures was a result of the need to curtail the sharing of air, before its pathways of transmission were known, as fears of transmitting a virus that was not manifested for up to four days threatened to be transmitted in hothouses in classrooms, corridors, and over school lunch. But the impact of closures was far more abstractly reasoned than socially grounded. And the abstracted logic of a reduction of networks of communicating a viral disease, or mitigating infectious spread. As the closures of schools spread, teachers worried about the lack of attention and engagement of minority students, and the limited access of many lower income students to complete virtual assignments, not only because of their lack of wifi or computer access, but because they were compelled to work for their family businesses, and perform duties that competed with school; the senselessness of taking attendance in virtual rooms, or even of assigning grades rather than P/NP, reinforce an image of the failure of public schools, and lack of authority of educational instruction or its relation to the virus.
Beneath it all, one witnessed, as if the eery underside of a broader lack of governance, a rather terrifying rapidity of a shift to the virtual platforms of social media devised in Silicon Valley as a new media of instruction across America, with minimal attention to the investment in retraining or engaging students in new platforms–which later migrated to a lack of attention in investing in strategies for school reopening–as if the closure of schools offered a mitigation strategy that was an eery turn away from the reality of the spread of COVID-19, and of the inequalities in engagement in instructional platforms. Was the failure to reach students or serve families not only a mirror of deeper inequalities by which society was riven, increasingly evident tot he bulk of the population who witnessed increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and lack of insurance or testing in many disadvantaged communities of color?
When Dr. Anthony Fauci told the nation, “we are not going to solve the issues of health disparities this month or next month . .. but what we can do now, today,” the voice of reason was probably far less reasonable for many, who had already tuned out, before he described the need for social distancing that was, in fact, a privilege for many. The social topography of crowding, of second homes and of gardens or access to parks that was revealed in the Bay Area made us think in practical terms to egregious inequities that were perpetuated by sustained lack of investment to resolve pronounced racial disparities in health came as COVID-19. Statistics of hospitalization and mortality of those infected, we registered as if with some surprise, revealed a predominance of black victims, reinforcing the lack of investment or attention to black bodies deaths in counties, neighborhoods, and communities. If news sources attributed higher rate of chronic conditions in minority communities from hypertension to asthma, often environmentally triggered, the inequities of the disease were not clearly addressed. It increasingly seemed to reflect the possibility we had creating different parallel realities to live, not open to all.
The absence of medical preparedness exposed huge divides in our society. The disproportionate exposure of African Americans to COVID-19 extended to California, data released in early April revealed; in England, blacks were twice as likely to die if they contracted COVID-19, and deaths of black males nearly 4 times higher than expected from March 20 – May 7: a generalized abandonment of blacks was condensed, with a vengeance, in COVID-19. How was this difference processed in urban populations? As we sheltered indoors, this question was all the more removed from most of us, and if we were conscious of its distancing, and the distance from that experience, the protests that would cascade across the country after the murder of George Floyd was viewed, repeatedly, in all its eight minutes and forty-six seconds, as a vulnerability that hit the urban community so much more violently than those who were able to comfortably remain indoors, or take refuge in green spaces removed from the suspension of time in the world outside.
After Minneapolis protests at the lack of conviction of police officers who had confronted Floyd outside Cup Foods, and detained him under the pretext of passing counterfeit money, entered its third night, as the National Guard was deployed, unlike previous popular movements against undue aggression of police violence, parallel protests spread to other cities–a code for areas of minority unrest among underprivileged populations of Blacks–although the concentration of such protests in cities alone was soon belied, as its demonization as a map of dangerous destabilization of a status quo.
When President Trump maliciously painted protestors as spurred on by a “Terrorist Organization”–the apparent success of Black Lives Matter in helping to organize peaceful protests were cast not only as “urban unrest” in eery terms recalling race riots, but engaging in domestic terror and “left wing radicals.” The recasting of protests as the work of non-state actors subverting democracy, unruly crowds of “THUGS,” whose destruction of monuments or property he harped on far more repeatedly than police reform. For Trump dismissed their claims by subsuming them a new narrative, of left-wing terrorism, of brute-like irrationality; Trump’s past endorsement of police officers to react without restraint, deserving qualified immunity to protect their keeping of the peace, identified the police as able to stop such violence, and in labeling the protests he sanctioned a need to “assume control” by domestic military intervention, illustrated by involving Border Patrol drones to surveil Minneapolis at night and and Blackhawk helicopters to buzz protestors in Washington, DC, under cover of restoring order to regions of disorder.
The championing of order and attack on rioters’ unruliness recast civil participation and civil action in public space as civil unrest in a form of disenfranchisement, and insultingly demeaned protestors by charging protestors of “dishonoring the memory of George Floyd”–the man who most protests sought to honor–in order to increase the public’s fear, and perhaps distract from deeper fears of the highly infectious coronavirus COVID-19, by foregrouding the identity of the protestors as unruly leftist agitators in danger of destabilizing the nation.
The alternative history lesson that protestors assembled was, of course, a recounting of the violence black bodies were subject to willful violence, and a geography lesson. The rapid assembly of an iconographic archive protesters collectively compiled on city streets rebuts this: presence of the Guardsmen for “peacekeeping” in twenty-six states to protect safety and property, on May 31, painted the spread of protests as by an opposition of the military enforcement and urban rioting many media sources adopted. But even more: the investment of the preciousness of each of the names of victims who were killed by undue police violence was a history lesson, of sorts, of the brutality of policing in America, going back to Medgar Evars and to earlier times, finding a continuity in violent policing of Blacks. Trump’s claims rather seemed bent on generating support for domestically activating troops to quell violence, as the maps of riots as fires that spread across the domestic theater–adopted in foreign media–accentuated unrest in urban areas and naturalized their violent destruction of property loss as an emergency–rather than the unchecked nature of police violence.
The maps concealed the way choropleths of unemployment rates more accurately showed the economic alienation than the spread or contraction of the coronavirus, or the actual distribution of cases of COVID-19.
Activating the National Guard seems to have missed the logic of the protests, or imposed a provocatively confrontational filter on them that reoriented military operations to domestic space. But protests’ collective logic of refusing injustice spread across the nation, revealing the real dangers of racial division and targeting across the nation, and not only in cities, where they were first noted. Parallel protests spread across the nation–and arose in George Floyd’s birthplace, Houston, where his family members lived and participated in peaceful protest, to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston, and Newark–as marches jarringly reclaimed public spaces that had been all but abandoned, beside emotionally riveting improvised commemorative altars. Marches seemed to resacralize or try to purify urban space, in the face of the maladministration of COVID-19, and in the face of intimidation tactics that demonized the protestors as subversive actions of anti-state actors, even as twenty-six states mobilized National Guardsmen to prevent property damage.
The only areas that were widely settled without anit-policing protests in the streets were on the border, bizarrely, as if the rhetoric of