Media in the COVID-19 pandemic: big and high, small and low

by Dale Hudson and Patricia R. Zimmermann

Street view. Someone has to work during Wuhan lockdown. Weixi Chen and Hao Wu, 76 Days[United States/China, 2020]


As Caren Kaplan and Patricia R. Zimmermann have pointed out, drone footage during the COVID-19 pandemic of lockdowns emerged as a new subgenre of media. It produced a distanced spectacle.

Aerial shots moving over new “ruins” of empty buildings are an elegy for global capital’s megacities, evoking militarized aerial mapping of the aftermaths of twentieth-century war. The new proliferation of drone videos operates as a series of hauntings, marshalling affect and romanticism, as dynamic nodes of global connectivity are immobilized into ghost towns. Drone videos during the lockdowns were shot by both amateurs and professionals. Ones produced by major news organizations, such as BBC, Channel News Asia, and Washington Post, camouflage people on the ground. They efface the crises of insufficient medical services and inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), deaths beyond the capacity of morgues to house the bodies, and precarious multiple entwined networks of health, industry, media, public policy, and public health on the ground.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Broadcast on CTV and later published on the New York Times website, images of Wuhan, where SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19 was first detected, are rendered by a remote-controlled drone to hide the frenetic activity inside the hospitals. It was not until almost a year after the initial infections that long-form documentaries began to reevaluate what had taken place in December 2019 and January 2020 when the virus became a pandemic. These documentaries engage a kind of forensic analysis. Rather than merely represent the surface of the pandemic’s effects, as the drone videos do, they move down low to the level of the emergency rooms and intensive care units. They bring us the intense human suffering of patients, families, and medical professionals. They reset our memories from the nostalgia of pre-COVID-19 times evoked in drone videos over cities in lockdown to confront us with the ground-level realities of moments of the pandemic that we knew mostly through impersonal statistics.

These documentaries insist on naming and representing the fatigue and exasperation of medical professionals that emerged on blogs and news media during January 2020 when hospitals were overwhelmed. They demonstrate how state responses to the pandemic are complicated, and how information sometimes lingers between misinformation and disinformation. They show us how the pandemic was mediated as global—with viewers around the world lamenting over drone videos of empty streets—but its effects occurred locally. Drones allow us to see from a safe distance, offering the fantasy of seeing in totality—the “fiction of knowledge,” as Michel de Certeau observed in relation to the view of a city from a skyscraper.[2] To know the truth, it is often necessary to view the world down below at the level of the ground.

In retrospect, more than the aerial surveillance footage associated with twentieth-century bombardments, the drone videos are evocative of twenty-first-century drone warfare. Eyal Weizman describes how images can constitute a forensic examination of violence that happens at the “threshold of detectability.”[3] Under the Obama administration, the United States moved away from the “shock and awe” of twentieth-century warfare, notably the invasion of Iraq under the Bush II regime that was visually spectacular and mediated live on CNN, to the less detectable strategy of precision missiles, dropped by stealth drones, with micro-second delays on explosion in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine (Gaza), Somalia, and Yemen. Rather than leveling buildings on impact, they pierced concrete and stone walls, and once inside, exploding to destroy human life while leaving the building intact. As Weizman explains,

“evidence was the distinct signature of drone strikes: small holes in the roof of otherwise intact building.”[4]

Technologies from twentieth-century aerial photography partner with twenty-first-century forms of warfare to document the logic of “smart” technologies: human “hostiles” and the “collateral damage” of bystanders, family members, and victims of inaccurate or careless military intelligence are murdered out of sight, while the human-built environment is preserved for reuse by the U.S. empire. As Wiezman reminds us, we “need to study [drones] both as a material object and as a media representation” since aerial photography was often mobilized by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as evidence to deny that drone strikes had even happened since the buildings appeared undamaged.[5] The absence of visual evidence was itself an illusion. The evidence was visible, but it exists down low, below the threshold of visibility of aerial photographs taken up high.

Empty street visualize that the virus spreads via urban infrastructure and global networks. Toronto: CTV News, 2020.

Aerial views flatten the quarantine, so that everyone feels that they should have the same emotions. They are like statistics in the sense that they sometimes distort perceptions. U.S. rates of infection and death were high for a country with a relatively small and dispersed population. With more than 11 million inhabitants, Wuhan’s population is larger than New York’s, which is eight million.[6] To further put this into perspective, New York is the largest city in the United States. The second largest, Los Angeles, has fewer than half that number of people. China has 102 cities with over a million in population, compared only ten U.S. cities with this number. Wuhan’s population is larger than London’s nine million but smaller than Istanbul’s and Moscow’s, the largest European cities with 14.7 and 12.4 million inhabitants, respectively. The world’s largest cities include Tokyo with 37.4 million, Delhi with 28.5 million, São Paulo and Mexico City, both with about 21.6 million, Cairo and Dhaka, both with about 20 million, and Osaka, 19 million.[7] Wuhan ranks ninth in terms of Chinese cities by population. Shanghai has 25.5 million inhabitants; Beijing, almost 20 million, Chongqing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, all roughly between 12 and 16 million. What seems numerically big in the United States can seem small in China, but local suffering on the ground is almost the same.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to study what lies below the thresholds of visibility to big media, as well as the material and immaterial effects of COVID on human and nonhuman bodies. We need to perform the forensics by reexamining media that emerged in the moment of curfews, lockdowns, and public-health recommendations that frequently changed day by day as new data became available. The pandemic’s effects are not limited to the invasion of every organ in the human body, they also manifest in public-health protocols, such as lockdowns and social distancing.

In this article, we examine media during the COVID-19 pandemic—big and high, small and low—to understand the ways in which different dimensions of the pandemic can be communicated to others. This media helps us think about what is urgent and what is useful. While big media like CNN offered urgent information through its townhalls and reporting, it also provided information that was less useful. From its elevated placement, CNN’s national and global statistics flattened the effects of the pandemic to infection and death rates. It did not publish recovery rates. Those can create a false sense of security that the virus is not always fatal but can also suggest what we cannot yet know, namely long-term health problems due to COVID-19. Recovery is also an ambiguous term. It may indicate out of immediate danger of dying, and it may also mean no longer symptomatic.

Data visualizations by each of the fifty U.S. states reflect how each was forced to devise its own protocols in the absence of national ones. Data visualizations for the entire country, however, distort by blurring a vast array of “hot spots” and “safe zones” into a unified graphic form. By looking at them each day, viewers might mistake the spread as determined by contiguity, often reasserted in commentary about particular regions, rather than by other connections.

The virus did not merely spread from Seattle and New York City to surrounding areas in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in neighboring Canada) and the Tri-State Area (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York). Instead, it moved with human traffic since transmission and spread occurs from individual to individual, not geographical area to geographical area. The delayed rates of infection in rural areas points less to their geographical location than to their social disconnection to the traffic of global business.

The virus’s spread helps us visualize material connections over time. The drone image over Wuhan’s airport tell us that stopping virus’s spread also involves recognizing these connections by stopping globalized transportation infrastructure that connects different parts of the world. The solitary cars and vans that sometimes appear on otherwise emptied roads and bridges interrupt romanticized ideas of collective experience with the very different reality of people, who must continue to go work even during lockdown, so that our the lives of others can continue.

We do not altogether dismiss big media like CNN, especially in the United States where conspiracy theories spread on Facebook and Parler faster than the virus spreads from human to human. However, we want to shift focus to “small and low” media to discover details obscured by “big and high” media. The stories told in community or collaborative media projects remind us that the pandemic is global in its spread but its effects are highly uneven, not only in intensities, but in temporalities.

State responses were mixed with Brazil, Britain, India, Sweden, and United States as examples of ill-conceived and poorly executed responses, whereas Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Viet Nam were praised as model responses. Dubbed “the world’s unlikeliest pandemic success story,” Bhutan was recently noted as an exceptional example of effective public-health policy with minimal resources.[8]

We have proposed a tentative model of “big and high” compared to “small and low,” though we reject the typical assumptions about “high” and “low.” We are not thinking of them in terms of culture or quality, but instead in terms of altitude and distance. We are not thinking about “big” and “small” in terms of importance or even reach, but in terms of perspective and relevance. Big and high concerns the broadcasts of media giants along with the spectacle of images from aerial drones, whereas small and low concerns narrowcast stories on community websites or chatgroups, along with videos shot imperfectly on mobile devices at ground level. These different forms and modes of “small and low” media help us understand how to make connections between the pandemic and other aspects of our lives. They reject the drone’s distance for the mobile’s proximity.

Local experts in Australia,
South Asia, and Southeast Asia

CNN’s Coronavirus Town Halls mark a sharp contrast with short videos about the pandemic that are uploaded to EngageMedia’s portal by communities in Australia, Indonesia, India, Nepal, and the Philippines. CNN is locked inside national and international frameworks; EngageMedia is open to stories, no matter how local. CNN organizes its Town Halls as two-hour specials; EngageMedia, makes short videos available to viewers whenever they choose to watch. CNN is corporate; EngageMedia, community-based. CNN is broadcast on premium cable; EngageMedia narrowcasts on free-to-use YouTube. They address different audiences with different priorities.

CNN’s Coronavirus Town Halls are part of a larger international commercial media landscape that launched quick-response programming to a global state of emergency. They appeared belatedly, only after COVID-19 began to affect the United States. CNN’s Town Halls were the most successful corporatized responses in terms of audience shares. By 27 January 2021, 25 town halls had aired. Hosted by anchor Anderson Cooper and medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Town Halls consistently rank second in their primetime time slot. The format is simple: they are staged in the studio, robots film the hosts, and questions from viewers around the world flash continually on the bottom of the screen, anonymized under #cnntownhall.

The faces and voices of the people who ask questions are never shown or heard. Instead, viewers witness a cascade of simple and complex questions in flashing text that speak to anxieties and hysterias. According to Cooper, the sessions feature “experts, not politicians,” especially guests from global public-health policy, public-health and medical experts, and celebrities like Bill Gates, Alicia Keys, and Spike Lee. Unlike CNN in general, the Town Halls assiduously avoid contentious U.S. political debates about the virus. Cooper explains that they try “to stay away from the political side of this, because we do want to get many people to watch to get informed.”[9] Town halls excise politics from public health only in the sense that face-masks and social distancing have been politicized in the United States and in other countries where rightwing populism terrorizes political life.

CNN Town Halls relegate viewers faceless, voiceless, and placeless position at the lower screen where questions flash almost too fast to be read. In contrast, a series of short community-produced videos uploaded to EngageMedia, invert “big and high” to “small and low.” This strategy insists that people’s faces, voices, and places have agency during the pandemic. Robots do not film big experts on sound stages. Instead, humans produce videos with low-end video gear and mobile phones. While they are modest in production, these videos are urgent and useful. They move down to the ground, featuring groups of local experts and others who retain their agency amidst the pandemic.

Rather than extracting it from a world largely defined by global capitalism, positioning it as an unprecedented, once in a century, unique, separate, isolated, and singular experience, these videos insist upon threading other issues and politics into the pandemic crisis. Rather than big media, these videos are small media of great urgency. They emphasize their use value and feature many voices and many groups in a polyphony of intertwined perspectives. EngageMedia aggregates these community-produced videos, connecting them to videos from other crises, such as the Avian Influenza outbreak in Indonesia in 2009 and to informational videos produced by UNICEF and other nongovernmental agencies. EngageMedia situates the COVID-19 pandemic in a history of pandemics, epidemics, and outbreaks that all trace their origins to human abuses of the planet.

The Maritime Union of Australia produced three four-to-eight-minute videos entitled “The Year That Was 2020,” each featuring a different union activist.

In “Paul McAleer, The Year That Was 2020” (https://www.youtube.com/
, uploaded on 25 December 2020) Sydney branch secretary of the maritime union Paul McAleer opens by addressing viewers as “comrades,” using direct address in a medium close-up. The video interconnections between the pandemic, the bush fires, changes to labor policy by the federal government, struggles for Aboriginal justice, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States.

McAleer calls attention to how “Australian seafarers have helped thousands of people get through this terrifying time,” by delivering seventeen imperial tons (15.4 metric tons) of water to those impacted by the bush fires and explains how members of the federal government “came out and exercised their ruling class power” to ram through work-place job changes, such as “insuring [that] jobs are casualized” (meaning workers are not hired full-time but are hired when needed.). The images accompanying his testimony are derived from Australian and U.S. commercial media programs on COVID-19, generating a dialectic between the union’s voice and work with commercial media’s representations of state power.

Austrians queue as government struggles with COVID-19 crisis. Linesmen at Ausport protest.
BLM intersects with Aboriginal Rights. Scott Morrison government changes work law during pandemic.

Descended from white settlers, McAleer connects Aboriginal rights in Australia to BLM in the U.S. settler colony. Invoking the Uluru Statement developed at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in 2017, he aspires to “destroy discrimination, destroy oppression, destroy injustice.” He concludes by thanking the seafarers for all their work during the pandemic, then looking straight at the camera, he asserts that we must “build solidarity with other workers.”

“Rural Women Speak Out” (https://video.engagemedia.org/view?m=
) is a video about COVID-19 presented by EngageMedia. It is four minutes in length and went live on 15 October 2020 as part of the 16 Days of Global Action on Agroecology: Fight for Food System Change, which was launched by PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP), an activist organization. The description of the video notes that “the pandemic disproportionally affects rural women” with increased work amid lack of government support, and that agroecology helps to “alleviate the burden they are carrying.” The video is organized in a problem-and-solution structure, with individual women from India, Nepal, the Philippines, and Viet Nam, recounting challenges that the pandemic has saddled upon them.

Sherada Paswan discusses the advantages of organic seeds. Pham Thi Huyen explains advantages of natural substitutes for dangerous chemicals.

Looking directly at the camera and framed in medium shots, they mention children’s schooling, lost income from the inability to sell herbs at the market, and healthcare issues. The second half of the video explains the need for agroecology to convert to organic local farming. Angelita Manangan from the Philippines explains how she converted to organic farming to help cope with the pandemic. Sherada Paswan from Nepal explains that it is difficult to buy seeds during the pandemic and easier to use locally sourced bottle-gourd and okra seeds. Venda from India tells women farmers to use natural compost instead of pesticides to avoid health problems. Pham Thi Huyen from Viet Nam uses chili-garlic spray instead of chemical pesticides to help protect her health. Dr. Indira Devi P. from Kerala Agricultural University argues that the urgency of sustainable development goals is underlined during the pandemic. She contends that “your health depends on the food that you eat, the air that you breathe, and the water that you drink… you have to follow safe farming practices.”

Most of these women are shot outside, in their gardens or on their farms. The video features multiple voices of woman from different countries in South and Southeast Asia, united in advocacy for agroecology. The perspectives of these local experts are contextualized by on-location shooting with modest equipment, rather than placing journalists and big experts (and celebrities) in isolation with robots on a sound stage. These “small and low” videos make an argument that COVID-19 cannot be separated from food production outside the control of transnational corporations. Organic farming is not reduced to a label at a whole food shop; it becomes a politics of resistance against the very forces of global capitalism that generated the perfect conditions for the pandemic.