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Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that China hid its coronavirus outbreak until after several deaths had occurred. In fact, China’s Centers for Disease Control reported on Jan. 9 that a novel coronavirus was responsible for 15 cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, and Chinese researchers shared the first genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on Jan. 10. The next day, China reported the first death from the coronavirus, which occurred on Jan. 9. The article has been updated.
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, they’ll 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. They’ll cheer the Maryland distillery that halted vodka production to make hand sanitizer. They’ll muse about the Italian radio station that consoled a town as its nonni died alone. They’ll hear the praises sung for our Usain Bolts of vaccine science.
But the graduate students of the 22nd century — like some of the archive’s researchers today — might be most struck by our colossal failures.
They’ll know we had our Cassandras. The infectious-disease experts. Bill Gates. The CIA. A global pandemic is inevitable, they warned. Take what we’ve learned from H1N1, SARS, Ebola and Zika. Draft strategies, and don’t stick them in drawers. Be prepared to halt movement. Share, don’t shield, information. Use consistent messaging. If you must, shut down daily life — even if it’s unpopular — to save lives.
Yet despite decades of planning, cutting-edge centers for disease control and years of experience battling smaller outbreaks in “poorer” countries, the world’s wealthiest peoples, the future will learn, were unable or unwilling to halt what might mostly be remembered as a rich nation’s virus without suffering massive casualties. In piercing prose, they’ll 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.
“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 didn’t 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 humanity’s 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.
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 globe’s 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 wasn’t 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 civic 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 “didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. … There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning.”
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 didn’t. Johnson’s 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 Britain’s 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 number of infected became too great. 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 CDC’s website: The don’t-wear-a-mask moment. The one that came later, saying, Oh, wait — better wear one now.
So badly damaged were the images of the world’s 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 to the Pew Research Center.
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.
South Korea excelled through contact tracing and testing. Japan deployed its sense of the collective and a culture militantly respectful of others. New Zealand’s success was written with quarantines and aggressive shutdowns.
“There wasn’t 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 University’s School of Public Health. “A bunch of countries did it, and a bunch of countries just didn’t.”
Asked to grade humanity’s 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. That’s why we don’t get an A. But I don’t think a D or an F is fair. My God! We built vaccines — several vaccines — in less than a year!”
Yet even that historic medical breakthrough has run up against humanity’s worst instincts. Rich countries — even the nice ones, like Canada — began to horde vaccines and vaccine purchase rights 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 world’s 1,000 richest people had already regained all the wealth they’d 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.
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, we’ve spent $15 trillion globally on stimulus efforts 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.”
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, there’s 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 Bach’s “In Deepest Need I Cry to You,” it was inaugurated in 2002.
Some 84 years after the pandemic.
Because humanity tends to forget.