The world is riveted by the news of an unfolding health crisis in China. A mysterious virus ravages the city of Wuhan, prompting the Chinese government to lock down surrounding areas to stem the spread.
Morning news alert: Allegedly, the main source of the novel coronavirus is a bat from a “wet market” in Wuhan. We learn that bats are known to play a role in transmitting and spreading viruses to humans. At work, everyone is talking about a viral clip in which a Chinese woman enjoys a bowl of soup with the carcass of a bat hanging off her bowl.
Yellow peril returns to the streets of the United States—a spike in xenophobic rhetoric and anti-Asian hate crimes occur conspicuously across the globe. President Trump adds fuel to the fire by calling it the “China Virus.”
As the death toll from Covid-19 rises in China, the World Health Organization issues a Global Health Emergency. International travel restrictions are imposed. Media speculation and misinformation spawn conspiracy theories and chaos. The United States is split into believers and non-believers. An atmosphere of panic sets in.
My mother, a former military nurse, calls me every day and begs me to stock my shelves with food and necessary supplies. She tells me that she has gone through chemical warfare training and knows how serious it can be if the virus spreads. “If it is out of control in China, it is going to spread all over the world. Please wear a mask when you ride on the train. Take vitamins and don’t go to mass gatherings,” she says over the phone. “Nobody is wearing a mask, everything is fine here,” I respond, slightly annoyed.
On March 3rd, while photographing a Super Tuesday live broadcasting event, I take a break in one of the conference rooms of Cheddar TV Network where political experts and journalists are glued to the polls waiting to find out who will be the Democratic nominee. I read a message from a friend: “Okay, listen up! I just had a long conversation with my boss about coronavirus. She knows for sure from higher up that there is a 75 percent chance they will close all schools and lock down the entire country in the next six months.”
A few weeks later, New York declares a state of emergency and a “stay-home” order follows immediately afterwards. The city enters the first phase of a new surreality—traffic slows down; schools, theaters, museums and businesses shut down; streets become deserted; long lines build up in front of the pharmacy and grocery stores; people start losing jobs; deeper cracks emerge in an already divided country around the government’s response and actions taken to stop the spread. Self-isolation becomes the only guarantor of safety.
My brother-in-law and I discuss how the quarantine will affect our lives and what we are likely to face soon. “This is a massive identity control drill. Each country will try to implement new rules under the pretext of safety to stop the spread of the virus,” he speculates. “Now, every time I want to go out, I have to send a text message to a government number and get a permit to leave my apartment,” he adds, complaining about the new quarantine rules in Cyprus.
The World Health Organization calls Covid-19 a global pandemic. Everyone everywhere is suddenly bound by paralysis. Masks, hand sanitizers, tissues and toilet paper disappear off store shelves within days. Borders close. Some people hope: For once, people all over the world will be united against a common “invisible” enemy. The U.S. Senate passes the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, bringing relief to states, local governments, hospitals, small businesses and 36 million newly unemployed Americans.
Expressing zero trust in the government, my aunt in Moscow refuses to apply for a permit to go out. “I think they are using the virus to build a new system to track us. Why do they need to know where I am going?” she says. “I feel like I am in prison in my own home.”
A former classmate of mine from Sochi shares a video: A pole with a megaphone right outside of her apartment building that was installed back in the Soviet times by the government for national emergency announcements. They often appear in Soviet films about World War II announcing the victory over Nazi Germany. The message, in a firm and semi-robotic male voice says: “Attention! Attention! Dear citizens, we ask you to stay home and refrain from going outside. While being on the street you put your life and the lives of others in danger. Stay home. Follow the protocol of self-isolation.”
I start getting more and more messages and calls from different parts of the world from people expressing fears about their freedoms being taken away from them. I think about the conversion I had with my brother-in-law, especially after seeing how China implements three-color QR codes to enforce people to follow the quarantine. How in Russia people are assigned QR codes to go to work and travel within the city. And how in Europe tech companies are developing tracking apps to monitor the spread of the virus. I begin to panic and express my fear by drawing my first QR code as a silent protest.
The Center for Disease Control kows to pressure from President Trump, who refuses to wear a mask in public or declare the Emergency Production Act to force businesses to manufacture protective personal equipment. Hostile right-wing “Patriot” militias descended on capitol buildings across the U.S. in protest of “shelter in place” restrictions. Several Democratic governors and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and head of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, are threatened with violence should strict “lockdowns” measures be enforced. To wear or not to wear a protective mask during a pandemic becomes the most divisive issue in recent U.S. history.
I decide to keep drawing QR codes as a quick, personal response to major events and regulations that will cause traumatizing, irreversible changes to our lives during and after the quarantine.
The U.S. death toll passes 100,000, making it the epicenter of the global pandemic. ICUs are overwhelmed. Emotionally and physically exhausted doctors and nurses, perplexed by the cruelty and complexity of the virus, become the last to hold the hands of their dying patients. Refrigerated U-Haul trucks are transformed into mobile morgues as hospitals are filled to capacity. Mass graves for the dead are dug on Hart’s Island. The New York Times publishes 1,000 names of people who lost their lives from Covid-19 on the front-page, which is only 1% of the total number of deaths as of May, 2020… more than 1,100 people are dying per day. As the first wave crests, some states rush to reopen bars, restaurants, and businesses. Reports indicate that the rising temperature during the summer months might help the downward trend.
Days disappear. The idle silence on the streets is only disturbed by the wailing sirens of the passing ambulances. I haven’t left my place for weeks, not even to check my mailbox downstairs. I watch Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings religiously, crying when he announces the numbers.
I miss seeing people. I decide to take a risk and invite a friend to come over to my place for the first time since the lockdown. While waiting for her arrival, I realize how much our new reality affects our perception of each other. Covid-19 has instilled mistrust not only in seeing our friends and relatives as people who can potentially infect us, but also uncertainty about our immune system since we don’t know how damaging the virus is going to be for our health. She finally arrives and I stand there frozen looking at her and thinking: Should I hug her or not?! In a moment of mind- and body-paralyses, she breaks the silence and hugs me very tight.
Touching is taboo. Technology is the only way to safely connect face to face. Zoom, HangOuts, Meet Up and FaceTime become de rigueur in the service of humanity’s emotional needs: telemedicine, yoga classes, rehearsals, concerts, grandchildren’s birthdays, postponed weddings, last goodbyes…
The world is once again divided, this time between racists and anti-racists. The release of an 8 minute 46 second video documenting the killing of George Floyd at the hands of three Minneapolis police officers sparks protests and riots across the United States. Centuries of systemic racism, police violence, a lack of accountability and moral outrage explodes on the streets in 2,000 cities and towns across the country. Black Lives Matter becomes a global phenomenon as demonstrations are held in more than 60 countries.
In New York City, protesters take to the streets for 21 consecutive days demanding justice for Floyd and other black men and women killed by police.
“Say his name!” a protestor shouts over a speaker in a massive crowd as we walk over the Brooklyn Bridge blocking traffic. “George Floyd,” responds the crowd.
I go to every protest I can. I appreciate those moments of unity that have been missing since Trump’s presidency began. It is a moment of people’s power and resilience, a just exercise of freedom despite being on lock-down—a moment of feeling your voice is heard while expressing necessary solidarity.
In early August, my friends hosted a party in Connecticut. It was the largest gathering I had attended since the quarantine began. Knowing that they had been infected with Covid back in April, which took them almost a month to recover from, I asked my friend: “Are you still going to vote for Trump after seeing his inadequate response to the health crisis?”
“We are not voting for Trump per se. We are voting for the Republican party because when they are in power, we have better financial security,” she said.
Trump continues to hold MAGA campaign rallies despite lockdown measures. Rural, conservative regions of the United States suffer the brunt of the second spike of the virus. He visits Mount Rushmore on the campaign trail, where his supporters are denied access to the roads through Pine Ridge Reservation by native Sioux. During his speeches, he once again displays a pathological need to spread misinformation about the virus and the progress of vaccines. No one in the crowd cares.
Two billboards on the Manhattan Mini Storage building in Chelsea read: “Vote. Or a Russian bot will do it for you” and “Vote. Because Russian lessons are expensive.” A few months later, Elena Branson, a chair of the Russian Community Council of the USA, sends a letter to Manhattan Mini Storage demanding the immediate removal of the billboards. “Your ads are a form of aggressive propaganda that under the guise of promoting voter turnout fuels ethnic profiling and animosity towards the members of the community.”
The New York Times publishes a report accusing Russian intelligence of using a well-publicized troll farm, Internet Research Agency, to wage a disinformation war on voters and sow chaos in the upcoming U.S. elections.
Record-setting fires in Washington, Oregon and California force hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and seek shelter in the midst of a pandemic. Nearly five million acres of land in affected states turns to ash. The forests are reminiscent of a war zone.
A full scale war is raging in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), a small enclave controlled by Armenia but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. For Armenians this is an existential conflict — the loss of Artsakh increases the risk of enemies encroaching on mainland Armenia. For over a month, Armenians around the world march on the streets to raise awareness and call for international intervention in an effort to pressure Turkey and Azerbaijan to stop the aggression. The world remains silent.
I write in my notebook: “I scream. Nobody hears me. I cry. Nobody sees me. I am stabbed. Nobody comes to my help. I am bleeding. Everybody watches. I am dead. Nobody comes to my funeral.
This pain is in my DNA. I am born with it. It is so deep and excruciating that I feel it with every part of my body and mind. The pain breaks my chest as the boiling blood rushes into my head. The tears pop up on my eyes and run down my face. Everything is blurry. I can’t breathe.”
My father calls and tells me that Russian News channels are saying the United States is on the edge of a new civil war no matter who wins the election. “We are very concerned about your safety,” he says. “Please stock your shelves and stay home.”
Biden wins the election. Trump rejects his defeat.
The country faces a major political and public schism.
Coronavirus infections rise worldwide—in some countries the second wave is even deadlier than the first. New restrictions are imposed in nearly every state. Curfews are ordered for bars and restaurants, while schools and other institutions are shut down.
Trump refuses to hand over the power to president-elect Joe Biden as he doesn’t want to acknowledge the results seeking to convince the public that the election is fraudulent.
On a recent trip from Phoenix to Sedona, Arizona, my Uber driver Money Making Jes, a native of Detroit, Michigan who moved to Arizona six years ago, says to me: “You know, I voted for Donald Trump in 2016. He was speaking the language of the people, you know what I am saying.” He drives an uber and provides financial information for Forex Trading to his 170 YouTube subscribers as a side-hustle. The QR code on the back of his business card states that Money Making Jes is a Financial Freedom Expert. After a long conversation about racism in America, he expresses his disappointment with Trump’s presidency. “He divided the country even further. He normalized racism. I don’t know how they are going to fix it.”
Emma Kazaryan is a multimedia journalist based in New York City. She holds a master's degree from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Creative Writing with a minor in Photography from Baruch College, CUNY. She is ethnically Armenian who was born in Georgia and grew up in Russia. Her passion is covering international affairs, particularly post-Soviet geopolitics, and the Middle East.