We were increasingly existentially isolated in those days of the pandemic, as the anxieties ramped up around a virus crossing borders came to offer evidence of a health care infrastructure unable to defend us or to be extended across the nation. There was long the danger of turning inward, to protect oneself, but also a shock at the unaccustomed sense of the evanescence of life, that made us turn to Defoe, Manzoni, or Camus for bearings on a topography of death rates that we were not accustomed to process in any way. One of the consequences of the pandemic is we follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination rates, to try to make order of world whose disorder seems more prominent than ever. In the disorienting days of the pandemic, I looked to the ground in hope as a point of orientation, finding in stamps and strikes of pavers whose names were set in the pavement with century old dates an unlikely if newly compelling register of mortality that provided a somewhat calming perspective from the previous century–before the 1918 pandemic of the Spanish Flu arrived in California, as if I was uncovering an often unread archive paved beneath my feet in the micro-geography of my neighborhood, in images that we could view with only retrospective senses of clarity, as we tried to come to terms with the historic nature of the pandemic’s spread. For if earlier years of the possible pandemics that almost spread globally had been numerous–the near-misses of the fear of H1N1 expanding globally in 2009, of MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2016–the coronavirus spread in ways we had only seen since the avian-born Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19, and was far harder to map, track, or conceptualize over space, as visualizing the virus became a cottage industry and a collective rush to create the best visualizations possible.
Did it make sense to look retrospectively at the spread of the Spanish Flu, and to ask what sort of break in time it created by its spread? The maps offered a chilling reminder of the difficulty of stopping its spread to populated areas, across the nation, that was oddly comforting in the progression of pandemics over space if haunted by rising curves of mortality. And as we watched our own time-series graphs of the temporal progression of rates of death and mortality, questioning the undercounts, role of co-morbidities, and trying to peak under the hood of the data visualizations to grasp its spread, the dizzying global scale of infection rates, hospitalization rates, and mortality rates gave us all on the fly crash-courses in demography and epidemiology which we had to admit our grasp was pretty unclear. The learning curve was so daunting, if so basic, that it seemed for a historian more important to gain distance in the past, and precedents of pandemics.
As we tried to map the progress of the coronavirus, its origins, and contraction in different rates, we turned with security to the clearest form of visualizing the pandemic, the time-tested time-series line graph, that basic tool of visualization most fit for something so daunting as mortality, which had been a basis for tallying the estimated total of the fifty million killed in the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic, a tally of mortality we would later approach. While the 1918-19 pandemic was a removed event, the curves of mortality on time-series graphs tracked a sense of the compression of deaths to a linearity of time; rates were tallied weekly of the avian-born pandemic in an eerily identical graphic space of data visualization, which was echoed in the similar kinship of tools adopted to contain its spread–masks, hand washing, quarantine–as tracking the progression of time across the old x-axis and the rates of hard to comprehend escalating deaths along the y-axis distanced them with a helpful sense of anonymity.
As much as we were braced by how the progress of the pandemic revealed vulnerabilities of public health systems, the pandemic had posed stress test of the global information network–both in charting and sharing information about infections and identification of the coronavirus genome, and in educating the public about its treatment, and locating access to accurate sources of information.
The difficult to process nature of arranging these humblest of graphs in terms of total cases of COVID-19–a basic tally, but one hard to say was accurate; new cases per day, a metric that seemed to suggest how much of a handle we had on the pandemic’s spread; confirmed cases per milllion; or the rates of infection in different nations, that oddly removed the spread of mortality as if we were viewing the challenge of combatting the virus as a spectator sport.
Due to the official public denial of its danger or threat in the United States, and in the proliferation of online newsletters, uneven public tracking of infection rates by the CDC, multiple sources of ostensibly authoritative advice from whether it was healthy to exercise outdoors given the dangers of droplet dispersal from others, needs for frequent hand washing or gel disinfectant, and dangers of pubic space grew. We moved through space differently, in the Bay Area, projecting to different degrees a cone of six feet distance, internalizing distance as a social good as we sought to remeasure our relation to a fractured social body.
And it was fit that in the time of social distancing, I started looking at the pavement in new ways, and scrutinized on morning walks the clues stamped in paving of the East Bay sidewalks that seemed to parallel the exponential growth of residential housing in the city, about a century ago–before the Flue arrived!–as a tangible heritage. If the spate of growth of Berkeley occurred after the great fire of the 1906 Earthquake, the contractors who let their names on the pavement near my house–“1930,” “1938,” “”1939,” “1912” in a staccato of strikes on sidewalks near my house–an illusory sense of stability set in the shifting landscape of mortality as if detected underfoot. I looked at these almost epitaphic registers often combining names and dates in a grim way, as if they measured a sense of individual presence in confrontation with the huge sway of time-series graphs–a micro-geography that kept making me wonder how much of a new or changing temporality the pandemic would create, and what sort of geography shaped the neighborhood I lived in which I was not so keenly aware.
The geography of social distancing during the pandemic cannot be fully rendered, so existential is the psychic effects of the curtailment of face-to-face contact. Even if we have used tracking of locations to determine the extent of travel that folks with cell phones and androids allow themselves, the effects of distancing were interior, as much as they can be mapped in graphs or state-by-state choropleths. The enforcement of public health decisions of distancing or masking were met by uncertainty. And as the pandemic assumed global form and contours, I bore down in new ways on the microgeography of my neighborhood, looking for meaning and scrutinizing social relations hoping for a hint of of redemption, on morning walks; as I tried to negotiate what seemed a threshold of a new temporality of space and disease, with few precedents, avoiding dystopic narratives, the need to confront isolation was balanced by a need to try to map what seemed a deep historical change.
As we sought out ways of measuring the effects and consequences that would play out of the pandemic’s spread, the local seemed the best way to preserve meaning, and to look for grounding, amidst newsletters promised to offer concision and trust in the sea of COVID-19 information, as COVID Tracking Project helped to fill the gap of accurate counts of infections, where the government had failed. And was we searched for on-the-ground accounts of living through the biggest public health crises of our new millennium, we looked for ways of existentially processing unprecedented levels of death for which we lacked mental tools to grasp.Continue reading