Imaging a Global Pandemic: How The World is Showing Us What COVID-19 Looks Like

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

Quick disclaimer: I  have generally enjoyed my time writing these blog posts. I’ve been contributing to Ideas and Creations since it first launched. It has been a fantastic outlet to hear varying viewpoints about a breadth of topics from the Luther community. But boy oh boy did I struggle in coming up with something to talk about this time. Life is just weird right now, full of distractions and uncertainty. But I gave it a go anyways. And to be honest, it was a welcomed distraction from the day to day news I have been ingesting.


I’ve been asking myself what unique lens I bring that might  provide some new way of looking or thinking about the global situation in which we now find ourselves. Then a comment my colleague Richard Merritt had said a couple of years ago came to mind: “I think one of the main reasons people don’t believe in science is because they can’t visualize the problem.”  How do we get people to understand complex scientific concepts, large data sets, or the distant implications of decisions we have to make? I’ve noticed a large shift over the last few months in how we have been relaying information about the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve gone from your typical nightly news package on TV and standard news articles online to animated videos, interactive graphics, or well designed social media memes. Be honest now, how many of you would have completely understood what exponential growth was without being able to visually see how exponential growth works? I know I wouldn't have understood it nearly as well as I do now that I can see it in animations.

While we certainly find ourselves amidst a global crisis that is unlike anything most (or any?) of us have ever experienced, it’s struck me that the way in which information is being distributed is also unlike anything I have ever experienced. Everyday there are thousands of new interactive maps, animated videos, visually engaging graphs, colorful infographics…etc. And while it’s all antidotal at this point it seems to me that the flood of this type of information permeating my social media newsfeed and the news websites I visit also correlated positively with the seriousness in which people in the U.S. were taking this pandemic. I can’t help but wonder, what would have happened if we had started all of this type of visualization sooner? Or thinking even more broadly, what would have happened if we had a barrage of this type of visualization when we first started talking about other complicated scientific topics such as climate change, how vaccines work, or whether 5G is going to kill you?

This is certainly not the first time in history we have leaned on artists to help spread information. There are brilliant and long lasting examples of public service announcements created throughout history that have left lasting impacts on our culture: Smokey the Bear, the Crash Test Dummies, that poor egg getting fried in a frying pan to show you what you brain looks like on drugs, etc. All of which were designed by artists and marketers to pass on information and evoke some sort of action from the public. What makes this feel so much different is the speed, efficiency, and the depth of quality information you can have via the internet and social media platforms. Information is changing by the hour and we all have access to it. Outside of designed infographics and animated videos we have unprecedented access to personal, first-hand accounts of people’s experience. For better or worse (depending on how you want to view it) we are truly living in a time of citizen journalism and it can be a powerful way to experience the stories and the world around us.

I'm not completely sure I have some grandiose lesson or some sophisticated thesis statement to this blog post. Truth be told I'm still processing everything that is happening around me along side the rest of the world. But it does strike me that there is something different about the way we are both disseminating and interacting with information about this crisis. Like all information we are presented, we need to be diligent about making sure that the information we are getting is correct and real (especially on social media) but we should also take some time to appreciate how accessible and easily sharable to the information we have available to us during this world event is.

Smokey the Bear public service announcement.
COVID-19 infographic.

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