It is a very odd time to write a PhD on the visuality of the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic. I constantly find myself wondering about how this health crisis and the current pandemic speak to each other in visual terms and how Ebola shapes my seeing of COVID-19 and vice versa. Here are some first reflections based on my seeing of the pandemic.
The first motive that comes to mind when thinking about infectious diseases is the protection suit. Media reporting on both Ebola and COVID-19 heavily draws on images of health workers in plastic suits, rubber gloves, safety goggles and face masks. These images not only visualize (and actually emphasize) the contagiousness of both viruses. They also serve as a ‘visual barrier’ between patient and care taker, and, if you think about the beak doctor robe, they link modern times’ disease outbreaks to the plague as the historic reference point of death and destruction. The visualities of protective clothing and how they connect health crises throughout time offers certainly enough material for a separate blog post (or a chapter in the dissertation, in fact) but for the remainder of this post, I want to focus on one aspect in which the Ebola epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic differ significantly: the visualizations of the body.
In March and April this year, when Europe was the epicenter of the pandemic and cases in the US started to rise as well, I found photographs of Ebola and COVID-19 to be very different. In the former case (look for instance at this Pulitzer Prize winning image series or the World Press Photo Awards of 2015) images of grief, sickness and death were the norm. Whereas the graphic nature of bodily suffering is striking in the case of Ebola, it is the visual absence of the body in the case of COVID-19 that caught my attention. Here, I find the body not to be simply invisible. Rather, the body seems to be present through different kinds of invisibility. For instance, the body is ‘actively absent’ in images of places usually crowded with people. Images of the deserted Champs de Mars in Paris or the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin demonstrate how the pandemic and the lockdown fundamentally shaped and stopped everyday live forcing bodies out of public places. Furthermore, we (with ‘we’ I refer to the viewers of mainstream media in Europe in March and April 2020) see images where the body is invisible in a somewhat concealed form. Examples are the image of military trucks transporting dead bodies out of Bergamo where the crematory was overwhelmed by the viruses death toll, of mobile morgues set up in NCY as a reaction on the overburdened funeral homes, as well as images of the hospital ship USNS Comfort docked at Pier 90 in Manhattan alienating NYC’s well known skyline. Whilst not showing actual bodies, these images show where they are. In addition to the ‘actively absent’ and the ‘concealed’ body, we see plenty of graphs and charts that quantify both the infected and dead bodies, sort them by city or nation and put them into relation with, for instance, free hospital beds. At the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself frequently checking and searching for numbers to make sense of the pandemic. Discussion about exponential growth, flattening the curve, etc. seemed like something solid and reliable, something that made sense. In a weird way, ‘knowing the numbers’ provided some feeling of control in a time of fundamental uncertainty. However, as Kandida Purnell points out in her recent blog post, numbers may create numbness as the quantification of sick and dead bodies may obscure human suffering.
Whilst the three modes of invisibility differ significantly, they share the relative absence of the human body. Looking at them with the images of the Ebola epidemic in mind, I find them to powerfully reveal once more the colonial gaze with which a western audience (myself included) sees crises in the Global South. “Western media shows death only when it is in Africa” Patrick Gathara rightfully observes and criticizes how during the Ebola epidemic the grief and mourning of West African families was visually exoticized and turned into public spectacles. Images of the body in pain - and I find the images of the Ebola epidemic to confirm this point - come with the risk of portraying the person in pain as passive, vulnerable, and in need of (foreign) assistance. David Campbell (2004: 64) argues that “more often than not, images of dead foreigners are little more than a vehicle for the inscription of domestic spaces as superior”. The fact that we hardly see comparably graphic images in case of COVID-19 exemplifies that there are different modes of seeing and showing bodies, depending on where a crisis occurs. It is telling in this regard that, as the COVID-19 pandemic moves south, the images seem to resemble more and more the ones of the Ebola epidemic.
In addition to exposing the colonial gaze on humanitarian crises, the visual absence of the dead and suffering body in the case of COVID-19 in Europe and North America raises the question if the magnitude of the pandemic can be fully understood without ‘visual proof’ of the devastation the virus can cause in the body. Given that we cannot see pathogens with the mere eye, seeing what a virus does to the human body is one essential way of how we perceive, understand, and ultimately deal with health crises. Referring to the ‘identifiable victim effect’, Sarah E. Lewis argues that the ‘virus is much harder to combat’ without seeing the pain of individuals. This argument implies that graphic images of, for instance, intubated persons and grieving relatives could counter the persisting trivialization of the pandemic as ‘just another flu’. I am, however, not sure if this would necessarily be the case. After all, graphic images of suffering not automatically create compassion but may work in the opposite direction by fostering ‘compassion fatigue’.
So, is there some sort of ‘need’ to see and show bodies in pain? There are a multitude of reasons why I find the images of dead, sick and grieving bodies in the case of the Ebola epidemic problematic. Yet, the different forms of invisibility of the body in the case of COVID-19 seem to be (for very different reasons, but still) difficult as well. In the end, I do not know if asking for a ‘need’ to see bodies is the right question in the first place. In a beautiful blogpost titled "We’re missing something" Helen Berents very much broadens the question beyond the mere seeing/not seeing dichotomy asking whether the absence of the victims of the pandemic hinders collective forms of mourning: “if they can’t be conceived of, they can’t be mourned. In whose interest is it that we do not mourn; in whose interest is it that we lose sight of the social constitution of ourselves?” In this vein, seeing and, more importantly, acknowledging suffering and death can be much more than a mechanism to make people take the pandemic seriously. It may enable collective grief that connects society as a whole. Maybe, it is then not so much about simply seeing or not seeing the body but about finding ways to acknowledge the pain the body experiences in ways that create empathy and kindness instead of alienation. Regardless whether a crisis happens ‘at home’ or in places that feel farther away from the viewer.