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How future generations will judge humanity's performance against the coronavirus

   March 6, 2021 11:20 PM
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by Anthony Faiola

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Covid-19 Pandemic
 
Archivists are assembling a global time capsule that chronicles what we got right — and what we got wrong

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that China hid its coronavirus outbreak until after several deaths had occurred. In fact, China's Centers for Disease Control reported on Jan. 9 that a novel coronavirus was responsible for 15 cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, and Chinese researchers shared the first genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on Jan. 10. The next day, China reported the first death from the coronavirus, which occurred on Jan. 9. The article has been updated.

On the wooded site of a former golf course in suburban Washington, archivists are building a global time capsule of the pandemic. The digital repository — to be housed at the National Library of Medicine, a Cold War-era fortress appropriately built for fearful times — holds 30 million documents from 9,000 sources, with links to similar troves from Beijing to Paris.

Reading like a great international scrapbook, the archive also serves as a warning. Its podcasts, photographs, videos, health documents, website captures, news stories and social media posts will reveal to future generations what we did wrong in 2020.

Some things, they'll learn, went surprisingly right, particularly in east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Even in nations still counting their dead, the archive tells us, humanity stepped up. Our descendants will be moved by the selfies of a London nurse, her skin blotchy with fatigue and mask marks after a nine-hour coronavirus shift. They'll cheer the Maryland distillery that halted vodka production to make hand sanitizer. They'll muse about the Italian radio station that consoled a town as its nonni died alone. They'll hear the praises sung for our Usain Bolts of vaccine science. But the graduate students of the 22nd century — like some of the archive's researchers today — might be most struck by our colossal failures.

They'll know we had our Cassandras. The infectious-disease experts. Bill Gates. The CIA. A global pandemic is inevitable, they warned. Take what we've learned from H1N1, SARS, Ebola and Zika. Draft strategies, and don't stick them in drawers. Be prepared to halt movement. Share, don't shield, information. Use consistent messaging. If you must, shut down daily life — even if it's unpopular — to save lives.

Yet despite decades of planning, cutting-edge centers for disease control and years of experience battling smaller outbreaks in "poorer" countries, the world's wealthiest peoples, the future will learn, were unable or unwilling to halt what might mostly be remembered as a rich nation's virus without suffering massive casualties. In piercing prose, they'll see the lack of leadership. The failure to coordinate. The on-again, off-again lockdowns. The no lockdowns at all. The misinformation and politicization of a health crisis. The virus deniers and never-maskers from Missouri to Medellín who confused personal freedom with a criminal disregard for everyone else.

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