On the Impossibility of Visualizing a Pandemic
Every graphic tells a story, and we desperately need stories in order to divine meaning out of chaos
This week marks a year that the Covid Tracker Project, based out of The Atlantic, has been gathering data on the pandemic. With that anniversary, the editors recently announced they’re ending the data collection part of their work. For the past year, I’ve become accustomed to starting and ending most days with graphs like these: Line graphs laying out the number of Covid cases, the number of hospitalizations, the number of deaths; heat maps showing the severity of outbreaks, organized by county and by zip code. And now, the ever-expanding number of vaccines delivered.
Each of these charts tells a narrative, particularly during the first wave last April, when my need to scan the data for signs that the disease was slowing became almost ritualistic, like scrutinizing a Tarot card or the entrails of a goat, divining meaning out of what seemed like utter chaos. It’s not entirely coincidental that these graphs, at least before the second and third waves hit came to look like visual representations of a narrative arc. Conflict is introduced, tension builds as conflict intensifies, a climax is reached, and a denouement eventually resolves the conflict.
When I wasn’t scrutinizing charts I was rereading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a book whose narrative development relies a great deal on what was then a relatively recent tool, the Bill of Mortality. A weekly list of how many people had died from what, the Bill of Mortality was vital in understanding the epidemic of 1665 and for developing early strategies of epidemiology.
After a death was discovered, the parish priest would dispatch “Searchers,” usually elderly women paid by the church, to investigate the body and determine the cause of death. These Searchers were untrained, but they were an essential part of the process. They were sworn to report their findings faithfully, “by vertue of their oath,” to the Constable of the precinct, who would in turn collate this data and print the Bill of Mortality for his precinct.
A Journal of the Plague Year reads like a memoir at times, but it’s deliberately a novel. The narrator, who identifies himself simply as “H. F.,” is less Defoe and more an omniscient presence, a flaneur among the carnage, surveying the wreckage and recording his impressions. Juxtaposed against this anecdotal reportage are the Bills of Mortality—rigid statistics that organize the rising action, climax, and denouement of the book. They track the plague in its early days, from just a few cases here and there, until it dominates the weekly reports of deaths. And just as they herald the onset of the calamity, the Bills mark the ending of the epidemic as well.
If the book is structured around a narrative conclusion, however, it doesn’t offer a satisfying moral one. Then as now, the poor do most of the suffering. And Defoe’s H. F. is sensitive to the way the plague amplifies inequality; he listens to firsthand accounts of the distress of his neighbors and reacts to their calamities with empathy. Defoe seemed intent to make one thing clear: The impact of the plague must be measured by its effects on the lowest tiers of society. He writes:
It is impossible to describe the most horrible Cries and Noise the poor People would make at their bringing the dead Bodies of their Children and Friends out to the Cart, and by the Number one would have thought, there had been none left behind, or that there were People enough for a small City liveing in those Places: Several times they cryed Murther, sometimes Fire; but it was easie to perceive it was all Distraction, and the Complaints of Distress’d and distemper’d People.
Defoe’s book, notes scholar Maximillian E. Novak, seems a sharp rebuke to a writer like Samuel Pepys, who recorded news of the plague with little discomfort, and whose final diary entry for 1665 reads, “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time.” The philosophical problem posed by the plague was that those in power and those with means fled the city, living in safety, while the poor faced death and apocalypse. It was a perverse inversion of the Christian moral universe which promised that the venal would be punished and the poor would inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. The seals had been broken, the Pale Horse let loose, and yet all this death had only made things worse.
The Government Has Dismantled Our Ability to Grieve as a Nation
Grief is an unwieldy weapon, and the GOP has shown it would rather mock death than mourn it.
As far as the book is concerned, the Bills of Mortality are vital for creating narrative order out of moral chaos. While H. F. is the chronicler of what happens, he is not the book’s protagonist. Novak points out that “It is a novel with a collective hero — the London poor — and … it is the survival of London that matters.” And it is through these weekly death records that this collective hero is made manifest.
Writing on the history of the Bill of Mortality, scholar Erin Sullivan argues that by both “itemizing and locating illness in the city, the bills helped demystify and lay open the nature of disease for their readers, effectively offering up the dissected ‘body’ of London on a weekly basis for public examination.” What these records did, in other words, was to shift the focus away from the individual death and on to statistics about death, and, in the process, made London itself into the figurative individual patient suffering from plague.
In this sense they acted as the city’s anatomists, sectioning, investigating, and diagnosing London’s different parts/parishes in an attempt to regulate the sicknesses that imperiled her survival. By reading and interpreting these regular, ‘premortem’ examinations of London’s health, citizens could develop strategies for managing both public and private disease, thereby limiting future damage.
The idea that a pandemic shifts the central “body” of concern from an individual human to the city, the state, the nation, or even the world, is a necessary reconceptualization, and one that attempts to refocus our concern away from celebrities and politicians to those on the front lines. But this translation does not come without its own costs. Individual stories are lost, outliers are erased as blips, and people come to be identified not by who they are but by the various risk groups to whom they belong. The more severe the pandemic, the more necessary this collating and aggregating becomes, and the more emphatic the metaphoric translation from the individual body to the group body becomes.
A year later, the corner, it seems, finally turned, it’s time to start asking what happens after the denouement, when this need to turn individual bodies into points on a graph becomes less acute. How do we recover these lost stories?
At two different milestones, the New York Times has given over its front page to attempts to visualize the data of the Covid pandemic in a way that restores some humanity to those we’ve lost. At 100,000 deaths, the front page was covered entirely with brief obituaries: the name, age, state, and a brief line about who each person was.
At the time, Simone Landon, assistant editor of the graphics desk, confessed that she and her colleagues had recognized that, “both among ourselves and perhaps in the general reading public, there’s a little bit of a fatigue with the data.” The idea of names instead, seemed an attempt to intervene the rising and falling graph with the individual humanity of those data points. As Landon explained, putting 100,000 dots or stick figures on a page “doesn’t really tell you very much about who these people were, the lives that they lived, what it means for us as a country.”
The graphic remains a compelling and powerful work of journalism, worth reading now as the day it was published. But it is also woefully incomplete; only 1,000 deaths were printed. Even attempts to restore the full picture of those lost to Covid seems like it can only ever be a small percentage of the true count.
That was last May. A few weeks ago, the Times marked another milestone — this time half-a-million dead — again on its front page. Whatever Landon and her colleagues’ misgivings on the paucity of little dots seems to be gone; the front page depicted each death as a dot, the page shading from nearly white to thick, heavy black ink by the bottom. As Bill Marsh, print graphics coordinator, explained, “The fact that we can create something with half a million dots that is visible and readable all in one piece, on one sheet of paper, that people can scan and ponder — it’s made for print, in a way. It seems natural for the front page.”
Between Landon’s comments last May and Marsh’s in February, we seem stuck in a terrible bind. You can ponder the entire scope of what’s happened, or you can focus on the individuals at the expense of that scope. But the problem with perspective is that you can’t look at two places at once, and no matter where you focus your gaze, some crucial part of the story will be out of sight. The second wave of any terrible catastrophe is this inability to ever fully grasp both the totality of the loss and the individual stories that make up that totality.
I can’t help but thinking of another passage in A Journal of a Plague Year. In cataloging the various “delusions” that Londoners suffer as a result of the epidemic, H. F. describes one incident he observes while passing by the Bishopsgate Churchyard. In the narrow passageway between the almshouse and the wall of the church, he encounters a man claiming to see a ghost in the cemetery. “He described the shape, the posture, and the movement of it so exactly that it was the greatest matter of amazement to him in the world that everybody did not see it as well as he,” he reports. “This ghost, as the poor man affirmed, made signs to the houses, and to the ground, and to the people, plainly intimating, or else they so understanding it, that abundance of the people should come to be buried in that churchyard, as indeed happened….” H.F.’s ability to so precisely describe the ghost and its movements to everyone who passed by convinces enough of the others that they could see the ghost as well, and a small crowd gathers each day to watch it, until the bells tolled eleven o’clock, “and then the ghost would seem to start, and, as if he were called away, disappeared on a sudden.”
H. F. remains skeptical. “I looked earnestly every way, and at the very moment that this man directed, but could not see the least appearance of anything,” he confesses, chalking the whole experience up to the mass delusions brought on by the stress of the plague.
Questions of the supernatural aside, ghost stories are valuable for two reasons. First, they offer some kind of hope of justice; ghosts appear when the moral balance has been upset, calling us to make things right, just ask Hamlet. As with Defoe’s London, we’ve spent the past year facing the brutal fact that pandemics do not deliver divine justice—they mainly serve to exacerbate inequality. The ghost calling out to “make things right” must be heard, and if we rush to simply return to normal without making attempts at restitution, then this year truly will have been for nothing.
Second, ghosts remind us that the work of mourning is not yet done. It may be impossible, in the moment of the pandemic, to reconcile the scope of the disaster with the individual stories of loss, but that does not mean that we are absolved from this obligation. There will come a time when the need to read history as a chart will subside, and at that point we will still be left with the task of grieving our dead. For a long time to come — long after the line on that graph has gone flat, long after the denouement of this story — the ghosts of this past year will still be there for anyone who cares to look, making signs, pointing here, pointing there. Do you see? Do you see?