Almost exactly two years ago, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Since then, an estimated 57 percent of the world’s population has been infected by the virus at least once, and just this Monday, the global total of deaths from the coronavirus surpassed 6 million. For two years, the toll of the disease has been tracked day by day in statistics ranging from the number of people who have fallen ill and died to the years knocked off average lifespans and the economic damage incurred. But the pandemic has also changed life in countless immeasurable ways: in our rituals surrounding mourning, our embodied habits when we socialize with others, how we interact with strangers.
Both the overt consequences of the pandemic — strained medical facilities and armored healthcare workers, sick patients and distressed love ones, funeral processions — and subtler ones — closed museums, modified celebrations, displacement — have been documented by over 80 photographers in dozens of countries for National Geographic. They depict the unique and varied ways in which people have adapted to their new realities while portraying the universality of grief and loss around the world.
Several photos of fully-suited hospital workers, which resemble wartime photography in their composition, color, and tone, have become recognizable to us, as similar images of essential workers were widely shared on social media and cable news during the early phases of the pandemic. Other photos might give us a little more pause, such as a minimalist portrait of two sisters grieving on an iPad screen, staged between two white floral arrangements. That photo illustrates how individuals and families creatively sought new and beautiful ways to honor loss despite constraints on physical gathering.
The photo above, taken by Alessandro Cinque in Peru, shows six funeral home workers dressed in personal protective equipment standing in line waiting for a service to end to move a coffin into a grave at the urban cemetery. Visible behind the workers are devotional and personal trinkets such as vases, crosses, and photos. The image is a stark representation of both the labor that goes into taking proper care of the dead and how the realms of the living and the dead drew ever closer in the past two years.
Another somber photo, taken by Muhammad Fadli, shows Rorotan Public Cemetery in North Jakarta, Indonesia, which opened in March 2021 and is dedicated specifically to the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. With space to bury 7,200 bodies, the graveyard quickly reached capacity during the surge of the Delta variant, when Jakarta was an epicenter of the pandemic. The local government made plans to expand the cemetery in response.
A representation of the incomprehensible scale of death and suffering the pandemic brought about in the United States was captured by Stephen Wilkes in Washington, DC, where white flags were planted on the National Mall last year to represent every American life lost to COVID-19. (At the time, the US had just logged over 670,000 deaths.)
Wilkes took 4,882 photographs over 30 hours of the exhibit, recording scores of people moving through and interacting with the installation, and merged them into a single composite image that transitions from day to night from left to right in his distinctive style.
Some photos show how mundane life has been transformed in occasionally trivial ways that have nevertheless changed our daily experiences of inhabiting the world. The photo above shows a grid of people socially distanced, taking qualification exams to become insurance agents on a yellowing soccer field in South Korea. What is not detectable from the photograph is that it was reportedly a “very windy day” and that over 18,000 people across Korea took that same exam that day.
All 45 photographs that have been spotlighted for the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic can be found on National Geographic‘s website.
A handful of photos show how people have managed to find solace, communion, and even joy during this time. One shows a thoroughfare in Caracas, Venezuela illuminated at dusk by street lamps, packed with musicians from the Orquesta Sinfónica Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho and audience members during an open-air performance of music drawing from classical and Afro-Caribbean styles. Another is a self-portrait taken by a woman when she visited the ocean for the first time since lockdown, where she found “peace of mind.”
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