Visualizing the Pandemic by Jerome Crowder, PhD

Crowder is a medical and visual anthropologist. His research focuses on the conceptualization of illness and help seeking behavior among urban migrants. Crowder’s books, articles and exhibits explore how migrants define and maintain community; he is currently the president of the Society for Visual Anthropology.

Visualizing Covid-19

As Covid-19 wreaks havoc across the globe and close to home, one of the virus’ features that makes its spread so disconcerting is our inability to SEE it. Knowing its molecular structure or viewing its image from an electron microscope doesn’t help us avoid contracting it. How can we visualize Covid-19 in a way that is meaningful? 

First, we can see it’s impact on our society by viewing our preparation for its arrival and our reaction to its infection. These are material manifestations of the virus, which are culturally informed and expressed. They are different everywhere.

Covid-19 offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on our cultural assumptions and expectations about infectious disease. I immediately conjure up images from The End of Polio by Sebastião Salgado (2003), dramatic black and white images documenting the final stages in the eradication of that virus… what new images will Covid-19 bring us?

Early in the outbreak I was mesmerized by television images from the Chinese response to Covid-19, images of building temporary hospitals, people walking down the streets wearing face masks, gloves and smocks, empty roads, packed clinics. I also thought about the images we don’t get to see, the faces of the health care workers skillfully attending to their patients, families huddled together worried about a relative in quarantine, or public health officials in heated conversations with politicians obsessed with keeping the status quo. Over time, images will emerge that tell the stories we have not heard, they will help shape new facets in our understanding of what Covid-19 means.

As Covid-19 spreads, the images we see show how cultures respond to it. Even though the virus was discovered in South Korea and the USA on the same day (January 20, 2020), reviewing images from the news reveals a decidedly different approach to the rapidly spreading infection. Images from S. Korea show lines of people waiting to be tested, health care workers wrapped head to foot in disposable gowns with masks assisting patients on hermetically sealed gurneys, and teams of white-coat clad individuals with pump-sprayers walking in single file spraying the nooks, crannies, and surfaces where Covid-19 may reside. 

Meanwhile images published in the US show a president rebuking Covid-19’s danger, streets, parks, and malls heavily congested with people, and sign-clad residents in San Antonio protesting the arrival of Americans from China evacuated to US bases for quarantine and observation. And of course, the cruise ships not allowed to dock so infected travelers and well persons could disembark and seek appropriate attention.

As the infection spread to Italy and Iran, images depicting their plight revealed mask-wearing clerics, empty street markets and quarantined families standing in windows singing across to each other. The images are as strikingly different. By reviewing these images we get a taste for how Covid-19 is being conceptualized and addressed. Granted popular images published in magazines and newspapers have political intentions, but check out images posted on social media to really understand what is important about Covid-19 for people to share with others.

While medical anthropology’s eye is trained on people’s understanding of the outbreak and its potential ramifications to community health, my visual anthropology eye searches for scenes that reflect that understanding (or lack thereof). 

Escaping Houston’s urban center a couple weeks ago for Galveston Island, I was astonished to see the beaches filled with friends and families enjoying themselves for spring break. The Gulf side parking along the seawall was as full as were the cantinas across the street.  That’s an image burned into my mind’s eye, as three days later the County asked all guests and visitors to leave the island, residents were asked to practice social distancing and restaurants became take-out portals. Immediately, signs appeared in the windows indicating new hours of operation, reminding patrons to keep 6’ between themselves, and stores listed items they no longer had in stock (mostly TP, water, eggs, milk and pasta). 

Walking through the grocery I noted which aisles and shelves were bare and which remained well-stocked. While I couldn’t find rice, there was plenty of quinoa and couscous. What do these bare shelves tell us about our dietary preferences and cuisine? Upon entering a restaurant, I note the hostess was replaced with signs indicating which bags were for takeout or Grubhub/Doordash pickup, the lighting was cut back and the chairs were stacked on tables. 

While we all endure the trajectory of Covid-19, keep in mind its visual manifestations in your own community; what’s a unique response and what’s more general to your region or state? Keeping our eyes open for subtle changes in visual expression to the virus help us peel back the layers to better understand what Covid-19 really looks like and how we visualize the experience that will forever affect our society.

Jerome Crowder, PhD is a medical and visual anthropologist who has conducted fieldwork in the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes, east Houston, and most recently in Galveston, Texas. His primary research interest focuses on the conceptualization of illness and help seeking behavior among urban migrants.Crowder’s books, articles and exhibits explore how migrants define and maintain community; he is currently the president of the Society for Visual Anthropology.

Recent Book: Anthropological Data in the Digital Age (Palgrave 2020)

Articles:

Optimizing Community Bioethics Dialogues (Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics)

A Journey through Chronic Illness (Medicine Anthropology Theory)

Visualizing Tensions in an Ethnographic Moment (Medical Anthropology)

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