I have been watching SARS-CoV-2 spread on a dashboard created by a junior in high school named Avi Schiffman.
It reminds me of first being on MySpace and then Facebook in high school or of being on AIM in 5th grade and middle school–always waiting for a new message that made me feel socially engaged. As cultural content and news shifted increasingly to the Web 2.0 platforms, that social engagement in turn transformed into various iterations on Facebook’s aptly named the feed.
So it is fitting that I came across Schiffman’s website when someone on Facebook shared a Democracy Now! article about it. My first point of reference was NPR’s Democratic delegate tracker . Not because they look alike, but because I find myself drawn to check these sites while I know events are unfolding. During a moment of downtime–of which there are a handful more these days–I find myself activating a screen that’s handy and reloading the coronavirus tracker.
I don’t want the numbers to go up (except for recoveries). Even in countries like the U.S., which is surely much too low due to a lack of tests.
And yet, there is an anticipation that the numbers will have gone up. When they do, it fulfills my expectation in a bodily, sensuous way. When they don’t, I feel disappointed–and again, it is an unreflective, embodied disappointment.
There are other dashboards. Johns Hopkins has a more intense website . A darker color palette than Schiffman’s, particularly its red numbers for confirmed cases (whereas Schifmann uses green and reserves red for deaths), as well as a map and a graph charting cases taking off exponentially all contribute to a heavier, almost command-center-in-a-bunker feel. (It also reloads more slowly than Schiffman’s ncov2019.live.)
What they both have in common is a dominating present tense. To be sure, the Johns Hopkins dashboard features a graph that charts the number of infections in mainland China, “Other Locations,” and total recovered. And its map can be toggled between “Cumulative Confirmed Cases” and “Active Cases.” But the main elements: “Total Confirmed,” “Total Deaths,” and “Total Recovered” are up-to-date. There is no slider to set it to a previous state.
If I have left a Covid-19 dashboard open in my browser for a while, then I get a glimpse of the recent past and an always jarring jump in the numbers. Instead of having detailed snapshots on screen, I have a vague memory of the total confirmed being at 161 thousand and of the U.S. at seven thousand and, before that, three thousand. I remember Italy standing out at 24 thousand, while now it says “41,035.”
I want to resist the plain juxtaposition of this data-mediated representation of the pandemic against the human stories I have read from Italian friends on Facebook and by an anonymous US nurse on The Intercept, about the ever-reliable heroism of Cuban medical professionals and creative plans for so much progress by social movements. It’s easy to downplay the abstraction presented by these dashboards in the face of communities wrecked by sickness and economic contraction. But these dashboards are just as much a part of how it feels to live through a pandemic in 2019 and 2020.