On the wooded site of a former golf course in suburban Washington, archivists are building a global time capsule of the pandemic. The digital repository to be housed at the National Library of Medicine, a Cold War-era fortress appropriately built for fearful times holds 30 million documents from 9,000 sources, with links to similar troves from Beijing to Paris.
Reading like a great international scrapbook, the archive also serves as a warning. Its podcasts, photographs, videos, health documents, website captures, news stories and social media posts will reveal to future generations what we did wrong in 2020.
Some things, theyll learn, went surprisingly right, particularly in east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Even in nations still counting their dead, the archive tells us, humanity stepped up. Our descendants will be moved by the selfies of a London nurse, her skin blotchy with fatigue and mask marks after a nine-hour coronavirus shift. Theyll cheer the Maryland distillery that halted vodka production to make hand sanitizer. Theyll muse about the Italian radio station that consoled a town as its nonni died alone. Theyll hear the praises sung for our Usain Bolt of vaccine science.
But the graduate students of the 22nd century like some of the archives researchers today might be most struck by our colossal failures.
Theyll know we had our Cassandras. The infectious-disease experts. Bill Gates. The CIA. A global pandemic is inevitable, they warned. Take what weve learned from H1N1, SARS, Ebola and Zika. Draft strategies, and dont stick them in drawers. Be prepared to halt movement. Share, dont shield, information. Use consistent messaging. If you must, shut down daily life even if its unpopular to save lives.
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Yet despite decades of planning, cutting-edge centers for disease control and years of experience battling smaller outbreaks in poorer countries, the worlds wealthiest peoples, the future will learn, were unable or unwilling to halt what might mostly be remembered as a rich nations virus without suffering massive casualties. In piercing prose, theyll see the lack of leadership. The failure to coordinate. The on-again, off-again lockdowns. The no lockdowns at all. The misinformation and politicization of a health crisis. The virus deniers and never-maskers from Missouri to Medellín who confused personal freedom with a criminal disregard for everyone else.
All the public health people are shaking their heads and saying, It didnt have to be this bad.
Susan Speaker, archive historian at the National Library of Medicine
That is the tragedy of this whole last year, said Susan Speaker, an archive historian at the National Library of Medicine. We knew how to do this stuff! All the public health people are shaking their heads and saying, It didnt have to be this bad.
The digital memorial to the Great Pandemic of 2020 (and, really, 2021) will give us a three-terabyte epitaph to an outbreak that saw humanitys best instincts often undermined by its worst.
No single country, epidemiologists and health experts say, has suffered as great a failure as the United States.
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It will be a cold hard fact, as evidenced by 500,000 tombstones and counting, that a nation President Donald Trump declared more prepared than any other has clocked the globes largest death toll, becoming a symbol of deadly hubris and apathy. A mad scramble for personal protective equipment and ventilators betrayed a lack of preparation, even as a sort of toxic masculinity sickened health policy. It wasnt just the United States. A quarter-million Brazilians died of what President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed as a little flu. Tanzanian President John Magufuli ridiculed masks and lockdowns, pledging God will protect us even as hospitals were being overrun.
Social distancing, they told us, was for sissies. Face masks for pinkos and atheists. Last month in Rio de Janeiro, the maskless masses reveled in its sultry streets despite the cancellation of Carnival. In April in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador a tropical metropolis initially reluctant to social distance fly-covered cadavers filled the streets.
Many who defied lockdown guidance had no choice it was go to work or starve. But others simply failed to muster a basic sense of civil duty. Nationalism as shared sacrifice was for soccer fields, not pandemics.
As societies, we failed in multiple ways, said Marcelo Castillo, an intensive care unit doctor at the Kennedy Clinic Hospital in Guayaquil. Here, as in the rest of Latin America, we saw people focused on themselves, people with selfish behavior.
In Britain, they kept calm and carried on and died for the privilege. Prime Minister Boris Johnson kept bars, schools, museums and restaurants open, even as Paris, Rome and Madrid were shuttering theirs. The Sunday Times would denounce the 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster. A senior adviser to Downing Street, the outlet reported, said Johnson didnt chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didnt work weekends There was a real sense that he didnt do urgent crisis planning.
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Experts warn it is notoriously tricky to decide when and whether to shut borders, impose lockdowns and enforce social distancing. Still, the numbers will tell posterity who got it right, and who didnt. Johnsons government eventually played catch-up, imposing lockdowns that some argue came too late and were eased too soon. Britain stumbled into 2021 with the highest death toll in Europe.
From within the recesses of the global right wing sprang a horde of aspiring propagandists, spewing misinformation almost daily and often deadly. Inject disinfectant! Take hydroxychloroquine! A half-step up from the misinformants were the deniers including the 20,000 Germans who marched maskless in Berlin in August chanting slogans against the Corona False Alarm.
There have been riots in several European countries over social distancing and requirements to wear masks, and the impression is that it was the political right, or political far right, rather than any other spectrum of society, said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at Britains University of East Anglia. That tied into beliefs in weird conspiracy theories on covid.
Meanwhile, those who were supposed to inform us often confused or misled us. When the virus first emerged in Wuhan, China, local officials hid it, until the body bags began to pile up. Back in the United States, Trump offered schizophrenic messaging; more surprisingly, so, too, did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The archive has captured and preserved the weekly images of the CDCs website: The dont-wear-a-mask moment. The one that came later, saying, Oh, wait better wear one now.
So badly damaged were the images of the worlds two most powerful nations that unfavorable views of China surged by double digits in Australia, Britain and Germany, while favorable views of the United States plunged by the same levels in Japan, South Korea and Italy, according Pew Research.
Some countries were much less of a mess.
Australia got it mostly right. On a Thursday in November, when the United States had 52,049 people hospitalized and 10,445 in ICUs for the coronavirus, the Sydney Opera House had reopened and office workers were streaming back to their cubicles. The country had put its faith in science, quickly shutting its borders and severely limiting interstate, even intrastate, movement.
Messaging was king. Political leaders on the right and left sent up a collective cry: Wear masks. Social distance. Stay at home. Save Australian lives.
There wasnt a single path out of this pandemic, but it took being proactive and aggressive. … A bunch of countries did it, and a bunch of countries just didnt.
Ashish Jha, dean of Brown Universitys School of Public Health
South Korea excelled through contact tracing and testing. Japan deployed its sense of the collective and a culture militantly respectful of others. New Zealands success was written with quarantines and aggressive shutdowns.
There wasnt a single path out of this pandemic, but it took being proactive and aggressive and most of all taking the virus seriously, said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown Universitys School of Public Health. A bunch of countries did it, and a bunch of countries just didnt.
Asked to grade humanitys response to the global pandemic, Jha offered a fairly decent B-.
Then he paused.
Okay, maybe a C+.
The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, others, they just really bungled the response, he said. You saw more than 2 million deaths, hundreds of millions infected, and we should have all known this was coming. Thats why we dont get an A. But I dont think a D or an F is fair. My God! We built vaccines several vaccines in less than year!
Yet even that historic medical breakthrough has run up against humanitys worst instincts. Rich countries even the nice ones, likeCanada began to horde vaccines and vaccine chits like the guy at the grocery store before the hurricane buying up all the bottled water. From Canada to Peru to Argentina, the wealthy and powerful jumped vaccine lines, apparently viewing the clinic as just another nightclub with a VIP guest list.
Nine months into the pandemic, the worlds 1,000 richest people had already regained all the wealth theyd lost to the pandemic. Meanwhile, legions of the working class particularly the young, female and less educated remain unemployed.
We are the people who are below rock bottom, Umm Muhammad, a single mother in Alexandria, Egypt, told The Washington Post in April, after the clothing factory where she worked shut down.
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In the darkness, we looked for silver linings. As we stayed indoors or some of us did the Earth was healing, we told ourselves. The smog cleared over the Himalayas. In tourist-deserted Venice, ducks even an octopus returned to the canals. The upside to those mothballed factories, those lost jobs: a historic 7 percent drop in carbon emissions.
Those gains are likely to disappear fast. Already China the birthplace of the virus, and the quickest country back on its feet after imposing a hermetically sealed lockdown is spewing slightly more carbon than it did in 2019. Use of public transportation plummeted during the pandemic. In Buenos Aires, New York, Cape Town and Rome, commuters might long think twice before stepping back into crowded subway cars, packed city buses.
The mobile office might linger or it might not. From Warsaw to Miami to São Paulo, Brazil, commercial towers continue to rise. In the meantime, weve spent $15 trillion globally on stimulus to save our economies; only a small fraction has gone to eco-projects that could save the Earth.
I fear that few if any of the pandemic reductions will be permanent, said Rob Jackson, an energy and climate expert at Stanford University. In the long run, the effects of all that rapid stimulus might actually leave us worse off.
[As spending climbs and revenue falls, the coronavirus forces a global reckoning]
Our problem with pandemics is that we tend to forget and therefore never learn. The global influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million to 100 million people. Leaders around the world downplayed the outbreak.
They issued conflicting orders.
They delegated the fight to local officials, with often fatal results.
A no-mask league formed.
In Britain, a nation rife with monuments to every conceivable military engagement, theres little to commemorate the pandemic dead of 1918. The best known memorial is a subtle stained glass tryptic in a church-turned-library in Whitechapel, the corner of east London where Jack the Ripper once lurked.
With a mask-wearing, high-wire act, and a rendition of Johann Sebastian Bachs In deepest need I cry to you, it was inaugurated in 2002.
Some 84 years after the pandemic.
Because humanity tends to forget.