With the 2020 United States Presidential Election, a new mode of mapping briefly overtook the pandemic epidemiological figurations which have become the lens through which national maps are viewed. As illustrated in the figure on the left, Arizona state counties are colored shades of red and blue to correspond with the number of votes cast for the Republican candidate (red) or the Democratic candidate (blue). Darker colors indicate a stronger majority. This map is displayed alongside a map of tribal lands in Arizona. Tribal lands represent majority Indigenous populations (though it is important to note that tribal lands are often lands onto which Indigenous populations were strategically displaced for access to natural resources and not necessarily their ancestral lands) and correspond strongly to the dark blue areas on the voting map. This incursion is significant in the historically Republican Arizona and contributed to the state “flipping” blue in 2020. Following is a new line of public discourse about the importance of the Indigenous vote to winning the election. While electoralism does provide visibility to Indigenous communities suffering the ongoing and compounding harms of settler-colonialism, it also instrumentalizes the community as a participatory tool of the state at odds with the historic violence of the state against them. This instrumentalization is particularly clear as, simultaneously with the election, COVID-19 is ravaging these same Indigenous communities. Again, COVID-19 does not expose new weaknesses in the American system but exploits the gaps which have left Indigenous communities without water, accessible healthcare, and proper protective resources. Voting is not a favor to the oppressing classes, but one means of trying to establish the necessary resources for life and wellness. Particularly, in the ongoing pandemic, this means assistance and care for Indigenous communities. Such harms cannot be addressed by subsuming Indigenous populations into state apparatuses without changing the material conditions of their communities; rather, this will hopefully serve as the start of the long overdue recognition of and respect for American Indigenous sovereign power.
This art piece, by Eric Fischl, accompanied an article entitled “The Entire Presidency is a Superspreading Event.” In this imaginary, President Donald Trump is composed of spindly structures reminiscent of filamentous bacteria. Central to this envisioning is the stylized coronavirus serving as the President’s nose. Such a depiction seems fitting to accompany an article analyzing both the President contracting SARS-COV-2 and the high transmission event in the White House’s garden on September 26th, 2020. However, similar to the prominent discourse comparing COVID-19 to a war, this imaginary of Trump as synonymous with the virus itself tends to elide many of the particularities of the complex crisis (and innumerable failures) which have accompanied the pandemic. This is not, of course, to mince words: the Trump administration is directly responsible for thousands of preventable deaths and an increasing number of long-term morbidity cases. However, President Trump is a failed leader amidst a failing system. The gutting of any national social safety net has occurred over the last half century of American politics to culminate in the crises of health, housing, and livelihood in the coronavirus pandemic. It seems more apt to envision the COVID-19 pandemic as not a rupture but an intensification of existing infrastructures of discrimination. Trump is less a virus than a symptom of American politics trending towards fascist conservatism—a long and violent history which will not be so easily eradicated.
One of the most striking images to occupy our screens in the last few months is this global heat map of the COVID-19 pandemic made by researchers at John Hopkins. A heat map, says Wikipedia, is “a data visualization technique that shows the magnitude of a phenomenon as color in two dimensions. The variation in color may be by hue or intensity, giving obvious visual cues to the reader about how the phenomenon is clustered or varies over space.” This heat map has become popular and widely shared as a representation of the spatial spread and concentration of the pandemic: red marks out hotspots and black marks those zones that have escaped the worst depredations of the virus. It underlines the pandemic as a truly global event. Beside the map, a host of panels and numbers – on death, recovery and total cases – intimate the intensity of the pandemic. In modern western thought, numbers carry the authority of objectivity; they lay direct claims to truth. What grabs our attention most is a panel which lists total cases by country (and then by states and counties), indicating the distribution concentration of the virus. Despite its global spread, the country and region wise break up reminds us of our national, local specificities – fuels our immediate perception of risk. Such images and panels despite help mobilize nationalist affect despite its global nature. Countries were quickest to impose nation-specific travel bans, often with explicit racial undertones (such as the US travel ban on China). They made crossing national borders an even more surveilled and stringent exercise instead of shoring up healthcare facilities. The John Hopkins map repeats this as epistemic violence: it glosses over how community transmission happens, how national care infrastructures are to be mapped out, and how risks are unevenly distributed even within a nation/region due to historical inequities.