How do we make a pandemic visible? Visualising COVID-19
Prof David Houston JonesZoom
The need to visualise COVID-19 has permeated official coverage, frequently in the form of charts showing daily infection growth rates and deaths. The need to reduce the infection rate has been expressed in terms of flattening the curve or, for Boris Johnson, of the attempt to ‘squash the sombrero’. News coverage and government web pages are frequently accompanied by computer renderings of the Covid virus, illustrating a deep-seated need to visualise not only the public health situation but the virus itself. Despite an oft-affirmed commitment to transparency, such visualisations are highly coded. Television broadcasts and web pages on Covid are accompanied by computer renderings illustrating the virus’ crown-like spikes and lipid membrane, aiding understanding. Such images, however, are also quite simply more appealing, speaking to the investment in ‘information aesthetics’ which routinely informs our consumption of visual culture. Images derived from microscopy, while arguably displaying a lesser degree of mediation, are more difficult to read. In this paper I investigate the coded visual imaginary seen in COVID-19 visualisation, and the risk of ‘visual social engineering’ (Ragona) emerging from it. I consider government ‘podium’ briefings as a forum for the presentation of evidence (Weizman) alongside visual representations of data and pathogens.