This story appears in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
During this year—“this devastating year,” as Robin Marantz Henig writes in this issue—a man in Central Java assembled a barrier from bamboo poles, painted LOCKDOWN onto a piece of vinyl, and blocked the entrance to a village road. A Belgian undertaker began dressing for work in a hazmat suit. A child in Detroit complained of headache; a month later, during the memorial service that only 12 people were permitted to attend, her parents grieved behind face masks.
Here’s what the year has demanded we understand: that a single phenomenon connects these people, these places, this sorrow, this fear. Most of us are neither epidemiologists nor Spanish flu survivors; for most of us, before 2020 the word “pandemic” belonged to history, dystopian fiction, or books of warning from science journalists like Henig. The effort to comprehend, to grasp the new coronavirus as the actual global event it has become, is exhausting.
Trying to follow the science alone can overwhelm even the practiced observer, as Henig points out in one of this special issue’s examinations of the pandemic: “Even for a science geek like me, it has been unsettling to watch [scientists] debate, disagree, pivot, and reassess. I’ve been wishing instead that some lab-coated hero would just swoop in and make it go away.”
To call the essays and images collected here a record of the pandemic is an act of hubris and of hope; a record is a thing you look at afterward, in retrospect. When do we get to afterward? We will move on because we must, but how? To what? And what has changed us during this devastating year? These are some of the questions the writers and photographers in this issue set out to explore.
In her troubled reflection on the perception of scientific research in a coronavirus future, Henig wonders at the hyperspeed of the work, much of it conducted with unprecedented openness before a public also desperate for a lab-coated hero.
“Maybe our unfiltered view will turn out to be a good thing,” she writes. “Maybe, in a weird way, watching scientists try to build a plane while they’re flying it—as some have described coronavirus research—will be good for our overall understanding of the scientific process.”
Maybe. We are an impatient, self-obsessed species, we human beings, capable of magnificent heroism and unbelievable stupidity. The odds of us learning a sustainable way through this calamity? Teetering, it seems, from one month to the next, one day to the next.
While we were mastering the vocabulary of quarantine and the 20-second handwashing, the planet’s temperature continued to climb. Pandemic-side-effect optimism wafted by, to be sure, some of it merited. The dolphins returning to the Venice canals(1)—sorry, not true, though we ardently wished it were. The Punjabis who could see the Himalaya for the first time in decades, because economic slowdown reduced pollution so much—yes, that was true, like the cleaner-air reports from Bangkok and São Paulo.
(1) Another debunked tale claimed that during the pandemic, 14 elephants broke into a Chinese village, got drunk on corn wine, and passed out in a tea garden.
There was a weirdly poetic phrase, “cessation of movement,” amid Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta’s declarations as he ordered his country’s first pandemic lockdowns. It did seem for a while as though the whole world stilled in 2020, one region at a time. Those empty boulevards. The shuttered businesses. A Barcelona quartet playing Puccini to an opera house full of potted plants.
But even those able to hole up indoors could see how wrong it was to imagine that movement had ceased. Ambulances were rolling, emergency rooms and ICUs frenzied. A massive swath of working and poor people still face coronavirus contagion daily because they have no other choice. (2)
(2) About half of U.S. workers—in retail, transport, and other service jobs—can’t work from home, so they’ll likely fall behind those who can, says Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom. He warns that the situation is like “a time bomb for inequality.”
As Robert Kunzig writes in his essay about the pandemic’s repercussions for the environment, air pollution is rebounding now, and this year the Siberian tundra burned. “Will the experience of COVID-19 change in some lasting way how we treat this planet, as nearly eight billion humans scramble to make a living on it?” Kunzig asks. “What would it look like if the economies of the world were stewarded within limits set by nature?”
The devastating year made some of us into more insistent deniers, especially in the United States, which by mid-April registered the world’s highest COVID-19 death toll, and by the end of August reported some 180,000 deaths, about 50 percent more than the next closest nation, Brazil. The year made new warriors too, as writer Phillip Morris and others in this issue remind us—people willing to put on the damn face masks and do what they can to lead, to console, to care for people around them.
What would it look like if, the infinitely variable speculation begins—and 2020 takes it from there:
If we replaced the applause for workers suddenly labeled “essential” with higher pay, better protections, and guaranteed health benefits. If we forced ourselves to read infection numbers not to keep reassessing our personal risks, but to take in the disproportionate misery the pandemic is bringing this country’s Black, Latino, and Native American families. If we studied up close the faces of COVID-19 bereaved, when it’s more comfortable to avert our eyes.
That child in Detroit? Her name was Skylar Herbert. Her mother is a police officer, her father a firefighter. She was five years old.
Cynthia Gorney is a National Geographic contributing writer. She wrote about human closeness and social distancing in the July 2020 issue.