What Will Be the Lasting Image of Our Coronavirus Pandemic?

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When terrorists strike, or a natural disaster rushes up on us, there are images we remember, photos we recognize. Our minds wrap easily around them and we say, yes, this is what that is. We know what this is.

Cops standing in the street near a body, mothers weeping, tells of murder. The all-too-familiar impromptu shrines of balloons and teddy bears in a parkway after yet another child is murdered in the gang wars, and we know, instantly. Or, after a tornado, a photo of torn lumber in a yard where a house once stood. In the rubble, a child's toy. And you know.

The remains of a house washed away in a hurricane. The agony of human suffering in one of the endless wars. After terrorists strike, there come images of smoke, people running, police lights in the darkness.

These are not abstractions.

But as we sit in our homes waiting out the coronavirus, staying in place so as not to infect others or ourselves, we become isolated and live our virtual lives, on our screens. And there is no iconic image, as yet, that brings with it a thousand words of understanding that says: This is coronavirus.

For weeks now, the images we receive on our screens in our isolation are abstract: the empty spaces of the great cities, graphs of numbers of infected and dead, politicians holding briefings and discussing their plans.

And, as always, we see images of people in masks keeping their distance, furtive and anonymous.

News videos of the hauntingly empty spaces in the great cities are particularly eerie. The best of these, I think, comes from Chicago Tribune photographer Zbigniew Bzdak. A true artist, Bzdak guided a camera-equipped drone above the city, showing us the vast negative space that defines Chicago without people.

But creating art that sears your soul isn't merely a technical feat of flying a drone and snapping photos. It's the choices Bzdak makes that burn through. He gives us the empty streets, yes, but he also offers up the lonely Crown Fountain in Chicago's Millennium Park, designed by the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa.

The fountain is a black granite reflecting pool separating two 50-foot towers made of glass bricks. The towers present digital video of human faces. That fountain is always crowded.

Yet now, the large faces on the glass bricks look at nothing. And no one looks at them.

Without people, the fountain fits neatly into an apocalyptic story of some great and failed civilization, the video faces on the towers unable to tell us who gathered there, what kind of beings they'd been, why they disappeared.

While memorable, it may not be concrete enough to become a universal image for the pandemic. It is the lack of a common, iconic image that makes processing the coronavirus so difficult for many of us.

The deaths in the hospitals aren't abstract. But we don't see them. These are isolated, private deaths, so private that their loved ones can't be near. The victims of coronavirus die surrounded by gloved and masked strangers, not even a priest to hear a confession at the end, and without the last touch of flesh.

And later, from some other place, a public official offers dry pro forma condolences and reads out the numbers of the dead and infected.

But now there is something that isn't abstract, something you can put your brain around. I noticed it in a news photo.

It was of a truck.

The truck was parked outside a hospital in New York, a refrigeration truck, the back doors of it open as if it were a wide mouth waiting to be fed. Will this be the iconic image of the coronavirus?

Unfortunately, I think so.

I had hoped that the iconic image of the pandemic would be something uplifting, a candle lit against the darkness, an Easter lily, or daffodils and winter crocuses pushing through to the light.

As Christians now in the period of Lent approach Easter, many aren't merely fasting or avoiding a luxury like chocolate or whiskey. They're deep in the process of weighing and scraping down their souls.

And so, thinking this column through, I took a long walk with my dog, Zeus, on empty streets as a light rain fell in the morning. I listened to the oldest songs I know, Greek Orthodox chants of the lamentations that are sung on Holy Friday.

And I thought about those trucks outside hospitals.

You don't need to see the cargo. You already know what's in there, wrapped in cloth and plastic, irrevocably still.

They're sending refrigeration trucks to New York, and I'm sure they'll send them to Chicago. They'll be ready if they're needed.

If you were in Chicago during the heat wave of 1995, you saw trucks just like the one outside the New York hospital. The heat came so hard, so fast, that the elderly living alone had no chance. City Hall was unprepared, but then, all governments are unprepared when something like this hits them.

The elderly had been afraid to leave their homes. They kept their windows locked or had them nailed shut, as many poor people do in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Their homes became like ovens. And the trucks filled up.

There is nothing abstract about a refrigeration truck. It does not exist in some negative space. It is heavy, dense, real. We know what it is, and we know what it says to us: This is coronavirus.


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