This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds | Travel
This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds | Travel

This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds | Travel

Toward the end of 2020, I interviewed an archaeologist who—while locked out of her lab due to university health restrictions—was collecting photographs of Covid-19’s stamp on public spaces. Latex gloves and polypropylene masks, carelessly discarded in streets, parks, and gutters, featured prominently. She related a horrifying belief: Eventually, these non-decomposable medical accessories would form their own geological layer, a permanent mark of the annus horribilis 2020 in our earthly strata.

Whether or not that particular impact is ever revealed, others will be, because archivists, librarians, photographers, and scientists preserved all manner of pandemic-era media. While the coronavirus infected millions, shut down the global economy, and set the table for social and political foment, they saved masks, gloves, and social distancing floor stickers; screenshots from Zoom and online virus trackers; photographs of food bank lines, restaurant parklets, and mobile morgues; videos of ritualized pot-banging for health workers; anti-vax conspiracy paraphernalia; and so much more.

C. X. Hua, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

I drew a map of all the sounds I heard on a long walk through my neighborhood. My small neighborhood has become my entire world! So things that used to seem small now seem much bigger. Birds seem louder. I drew this map because I found myself listening more intently as I walked and forming new dictionaries of sound in my head.

C. X. Hua/Running Press

Such images and ephemera form a kind of “history from below,” to borrow a phrase from The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson’s book about the birth of epidemiology in 1850s London. “Most world historic events—great military battles, political revolutions—are self-consciously historic to the participants living through them,” he writes. Pandemics are world-changing, too, “but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folks, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity.” Johnson is pausing to marvel at the fact that modern readers can still discover, in minute detail, the daily habits of long-dead Londoners who lived near what turned out to be an infected pump because they were interviewed by John Snow, the physician who helped crack the origins of cholera by mapping their cases.

This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds

Aditi Shah, Berkeley, California, United States 

While drawing this map, I felt increasingly curious about how my neighborhood evolved. I particularly loved drawing the looming redwoods and clashing architecture. Even though this map isn’t accurate, looking at it makes me appreciate deeply the privilege of where I live during these strange times. 

Reflecting a year later, there has been fundamental change. Many of the businesses are, unfortunately, closed. Public transportation has come to a halt. The bus stop is hardly frequented. The wonderful Greek owners of Cafe Nostos have managed to stay afloat but have struggled with the compounding issues of being elderly in a pandemic and managing a business dependent on socializing. So now when I look at this map, I feel bittersweet and nostalgic. The only moment it is truly reflective was in the moment I drew it, and even then, the neighborhood was changing.

Aditi Shah/Running Press

Social media and the 24-hour news cycle probably place us in a more self-conscious era than those who lived through the infectious diseases of yore. But it’s still true that the sea changes of the Covid era were lived by regular people. If you or a loved one tested positive for the virus, the symptoms, course, and probable origin of the infection—jotted down by a doctor or entered into a health department database—became part of the public health record, available to be studied by science for decades to come. Even if you didn’t, your days of sheltering inside, wearing a mask, waiting on taped-up sidewalks, and sacrificing the social time that might have made it all go down easier but was precisely the thing that could kill you: All of that, too, was part of the global socio-political inflection point known as Covid-19, and you were as much a player as anyone. Historians have the archives to prove it.

This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds

Gro Njølstad Slotsvik, Bristol, United Kingdom

This is a reminder to myself of what to do to stay happy during isolation. The mountains are based on the wonderful works of Christa Rijneveld, and the sea monsters are from the Carta Marina (a brilliant sixteenth century map of the Nordic countries). My eleven-month-old son also tried to help, by knocking over a cup of cold coffee onto the corner. 

Gro Njølstad Slotsvik/Running Press

But what pictures, data, and even fossilized personal protective equipment can’t capture is what it felt like to live through a horizonless public health disaster. We have harrowing mental health statistics whose implications have yet to be fully reckoned with, such as the tripled rate of depression among U.S. adults, or the one in four young U.S. adults who have contemplated suicide. But what about the specific sadness of a teacher using Zoom in front of an empty classroom, or the fear of a recent graduate navigating the virus on his commute to a grocery store? What about the exhaustion of a parent balancing her work-from-home routine with the demands of two young children, or the pleasure of birdsong suddenly audible against the absence of neighborhood traffic? Such heartfelt ephemera is harder to quantify.

This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds

Champ Turner, Austin, Texas, United States

My map shows a mile-long route through my neighborhood that I travel frequently. There are dozens of possible paths, but I selected the three I take most often. I’ve become more aware of the geography of my neighborhood, both on a macro and micro scale. I’ve become cognizant of the layout of streets, locations of specific landmarks, and the tiny details in people’s yards that reveal things about their lives.

Champ Turner/Running Press

A few weeks after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020, an estimated three billion people around the world were told by their governments to stay at home. As social, economic, and political orders turned inside out, my colleague and CityLab’s audience engagement editor Jessica Lee Martin and I had the idea to ask readers to document how the pandemic was reshaping their homes, communities, and everyday spaces in real-time. We published a call-out to readers asking them to create homemade maps and reflect on their new lockdown lives. In MapLab, an email newsletter I write about how cartography intersects with the news, I shared an example: a square-mile-ish grid of my neighborhood in San Francisco, shown with the nearby hospital emanating anxious flash marks from a rooftop siren added for emphasis.

This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds

Stephanie Bhim, Sydney, Australia 

For me, lockdown’s biggest gift was the flourishing of nature and the space to see it. My map presents the magnificent trees on my walk around the block, all different in their shape, size, blooms, and the fauna they attract. I am dwarfed by enormous gum and fig trees, delighted by butterflies, enchanted by mushrooms in the sidewalk grass. The olive trees hearken to folk tales and distant lands. I am uplifted by the scent of jasmine, alerted by the squawking lorikeets, and beckoned by the rustling bamboo. With fewer cars and people around, nature is more apparent to me.

Stephanie Bhim/Running Press

The response overwhelmed us. With pens, paper, digital tools, tiles, clay, and whatever else was around, nearly five hundred people on six continents sent in breathtaking maps and stories. Worry and fear showed up often in these images, but so did inspiring quantities of resilience, hope, and creative spirit. Readers mapped the tight quarters of apartments in Bogor, Buenos Aires, and Istanbul. They mapped the one-kilometer neighborhood areas where they were allowed to range in southern Europe. They mapped the evaporation of work–life boundaries in homes across Canada, Pakistan, and South Africa, as millions found themselves teleworking, parenting, and grasping for sanity from kitchens and couches. Others mapped the challenges and traumas faced by nurses, bus drivers, and other essential workers thrown directly into the path of a fatal disease.

My new book, The Quarantine Atlas, documents a piece of the emotional turbulence of the world turning upside down. It presents 65 maps made by people living all over the world during the peaks and valleys of the pandemic, paired with stories they shared. It also includes eight original essays (six of them accompanied with cartography-inspired illustrations by Jennifer Maravillas) that illuminate our changed relationships to our homes, neighborhoods, natural environments, work settings, and other places physical and psychological. All together, the pages are a multi-paned window into how the virus transformed our outer and inner landscapes. Born of the twilight hours the world spent at once together and apart, the sum of its parts makes a collective work of art.


The Quarantine Atlas: Mapping Global Life Under COVID-19

The Quarantine Atlas is a poignant and deeply human collection of more than 65 homemade maps created by people around the globe that reveal how the coronavirus pandemic has transformed our physical and emotional worlds, in ways both universal and unique. Along with eight original essays, it is a vivid celebration of wayfinding through a crisis that irrevocably altered the way we experience our environment.

The uncertainty, the tragedy, the stomach-churning inversion of domestic life: There was no precedent for this stuff, no Google Maps or Yelp to tell anyone how to navigate it. The pandemic tossed out plans for new jobs, visits, weddings, trips. It dried up prospects for work and romance. It taught us the phrase “flatten the curve” but tricked us when a flat curve still meant hundreds of thousands of people sick. As days, weeks, and months melted into slurry, simple narratives of progress, beginnings, and endings no longer held. “What is time?” went the semi-joking quarantine refrain.

Covid also exposed and exploited existing social inequalities so profoundly that the idea of “returning to normal” quickly became unfathomable. In the U.S., the size of our houses, the health of our finances, and the color of our skin were key preconditions determining life and death. When George Floyd was choked to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, it made the lethality of racism all the more undeniable. In honor of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old woman—an essential worker—who was killed two months earlier by police in her Louisville apartment, millions poured into the streets around the world to protest anti-Black killings and systemic racism, despite health concerns.

This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds

Anna Roberts-Gevalt, Lenapehoking/ New York City, New York, United States

March 30, 2021, marks a year of being sick with long COVID. I think I probably got it at the grocery store, before we were all wearing masks, but were sanitizing all the food. My life moves to the tempo of fevers, fogs, aches, and moments of relief. Moments of grief. Bed mountain is the most prominent geographical feature.

The map shows other fragments; it is incomplete. Finishing is not always possible with this fatigue.

A lifeline is six others who are sick; we meet in the mornings when we can, sharing complaints, care, encouragement. A lifeline is occasional moments of deep presentness—one way to get there is this singing exercise on the map, taught to me by Meredith Monk. A lifeline is hours of tuning out, when the pain is too much to look in the face.

Anna Roberts-Gevalt/Running Press

Amid shock and upheaval, our pandemic mapping project struck a chord. By pinning down their upended lives to paper, readers could take stock of new, unthinkable circumstances and make them real and knowable to themselves and to others. They could plot observations of an unstable present and grasp relationships as they existed in the moment. Their maps capture specific feelings and ideas playing out in the tumultuous now, rather than concerning themselves too much with what might come next.

The maps also surface how many of Covid’s changes relate to location, distance, and geography. In some ways perspectives turned local; in other ways they widened to see the permeability of borders and bodies in the face of pathogens and aerosols. The boundaries between work, family, and leisure bled together inside the home, yet we also became hyper-aware when we left and re-entered, sanitizing, masking, and psychologically preparing for those transitions. We saw that where we live has much to do with how much risk we face, judging by the disproportionate infection rates in communities of color. Maps have a unique ability to construct meaning about place, and these maps show how individuals from diverse walks of life negotiated the world around them in new ways and with new eyes.

This Pandemic Mapping Project Shows How Covid-19 Transformed Our Worlds

Jane Black, Tucson, Arizona, United States

My map is from my perspective as a nurse practitioner in a primary care clinic. The map begins with the onset of the pandemic, waiting to see what was going to happen. As the virus spread, healthcare providers were making decisions based on rapidly evolving information. The pandemic hit the crisis point with infections and deaths mounting, and patients suffering fear, insecurity, illness, and loss. Gradually, the medical community has learned to care for COVID patients more effectively, but a weariness has set in as we all suffer our own infections and losses. Care and vigilance are still needed to see us to the end of this pandemic.

Jane Black/Running Press

During the pandemic, these maps were tools for empathy and human connection. They helped readers transcend the bounds of lockdown in a way that words could not. In the months and years ahead, we might look back at them and remember how a landscape of crisis and pain also held pockets of possibility and growth. In their dazzling plurality, they also remind us that no single perspective, assumption, or belief should necessarily define how we see the people around us or the places we live, no matter how long we’ve held it.

This will be key as the world charts a post-pandemic future. Now is the time for a collective cartography, grounded in hope and solidarity, as we rebuild better systems and relationships with one another and our planet. Such efforts are underway, even if the forces of fear often overshadow them. I think of a chant that rose from Black Lives Matter protesters, a chant that is transformative in its pure insistence that a reality must be seen, must be made true: Whose streets? Our streets. That is the map to follow.

From the book The Quarantine Atlas by Laura Bliss, a Bloomberg CityLab Project. Reprinted by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal, an imprint of Running Press, a part of the Perseus division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2022 by Bloomberg L.P.

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