Many of us are now experiencing the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. And for most of us, this is something completely new and frightening. Many of us are now at home, movements are limited, and social life seems to have come to a halt. Many are worried, about the health of themselves and their loved ones, about the impact of the pandemic on their work, about how the world will look after all this is over.
And some are ill, either at home, or in a hospital. Many will recover, some will not. Many aspects of our lives seem a bit trivial at this moment. However, in my opinion, much that appears trivial at first glance, proves to be a necessity. We all need a break from reality, find diversion in texts, images or objects that we like. So we can recharge, and sometimes even discover new insights, lessons, or find comfort.
When the pandemic was evolving, my thoughts were drawn to Saul Steinberg's famous drawing View of the World from 9th Avenue. It was published in march 1976, as the cover of an issue of The New Yorker. The illustration has been imitated by countless other artists. Of course, the idea of graphically depicting a short-sighted or biased view of the world, was not new; many examples of such maps exists. But the power if Steinberg's image is one of a kind.
For me, this map is relevant because it shows an universally shared phenomenon: What is happening in your part of the world, your street, town or country, is more important to you than something not directly in your surroundings. Not necessarily because you regard is a unimportant or irrelevant, but because we find it difficult to imagine ourselves in such situations. That is why many people often have stronger feelings from the news of a minor car incident in their street, than from an airplane crash on the other side of the world. We often even try to convince ourselves that what happened somewhere away could happen only because it happened far away.
In January 2020, that was the way I looked at COVID-19. An outbreak of a viral disease, at the other end of the world, in a town I had never heard off. Originating on a kind of market we do not have in the Netherlands. People died from it, but in my mind, that was probably mainly the result of limited accessibility to health care. For me, looking out of my figurative 9th-Avenue-window, China was more or less a small stripe at the far horizon.
When it became apparent that COVID-19 was much more than a severe - but locally limited - problem, online resources to follow the spread of the epidemic became available. These maps (I wrote a blog on them earlier) allowed us to follow the spread of something invisible. A virus. But of course, they do not show the virus. They show us the spread of disease and death. They show the sorrow of people, but in such an abstract way, we do not perceive it as such. It reminded me of Marcovici's map of the war cemeteries on the Western Front in Belgium after World War I.
It shows war cemeteries in the Yser and West-Flandre region, where thousands of soldiers died. Most WWI maps show trenches, or the front lines. But this this map shows the toll in human life. No tactics, heroics or nationalism: a map of cemeteries so parents were able to find the place their son was laid to rest. It shows the British, but also the German cemeteries. Death has no nationality. Notice there are much more war cemeteries on this map than there are nowadays: graves were concentrated. Therefore, this map offers a better insight of where people died, than a modern map of burial sites would. I will discuss the map in much more detail in a future post.
At this moment, in the Netherlands, those who can work from home. Schools are closed, many shops and business are closed. We are instructed to keep distance from other people, but are allowed to go outsides, contrary to the policies in some other countries. So, I can go to the supermarket, the bakery or pharmacy.
I am able to go out for a walk, ride my bike or play football with my children. Yet, compared to the life I am used to, I feel confined. And my children even more.
But we have food, clean water,shelter, acces to health care, to information, etcetera. So, without the need to downplay all what is happening, and knowing it is not very useful to compare sorrows, the current situation also asks for perspective. Or more precise, a change of perspective: For many, it has been worse, it is always this worse, or it will be getting much worse. A map that intensely illustrates this to me is this map of Sarajevo. It is a horrifying depiction of the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkan war. The siege lasted from the May 1992 to the end February 1996. The creators of the FAMA collective state:
The map contains all the details of survival, describing also how facilities essential for every city managed to function. The map shows secret passages and tunnels, special corridors invented to enable personal movement around the town given its exposure to sniper fire all day-long. The map shows the city which replaced its parks with vegetable gardens, its rose gardens with corn fields, electricity with medieval lamps and central heating with hand-made stoves, and tap water with water from canisters filled only at a few places in town; personal recreation was replaced with running under sniper fire, caloric food with plants from window gardens, television with the art of conversation, and art was turned into a resistance to terrorism.
It shows the threats, the suffering, the unimaginable brutality of the oppressor. But also the resourcefulness of common people, of creative solutions, of adaptation in order to survive. To me, it is a cartographic monument to adaptation. A monument to closing the ranks, sticking together, to solidarity. But it is also a reminder of relativity. At least where I am at the moment, despite the worries, despite the people falling ill, despite the closed schools and shops: We are not killing each other.