As was the case for many people, the period of time encompassing Unit 3 was challenging and fractured in numerous ways. On the 16th of March 2020, the UK government announced the beginning of what would go on to be varying degrees of social-distancing and lockdown measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. PM Boris Johnson addressed the public, outlined an "overall plan for beating this new coronavirus", and announced restrictions on "all unnecessary contact". The morning's newspapers would read: "Life put on hold", "PM shuts down Britain", and "Britain in lockdown". What followed would be the biggest suspension of normalcy seen in the West arguably since WWII.
At a time when I was personally already in the midst of a mental health crisis, the incoming pandemic naturally only compounded that. In an attempt at a coping mechanism, I began a visual diary on that first day of social distancing measures on the 16th of March. Initially there was no motivation beyond trying to just sort through anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and what would later come to be known as the 'infodemic' - the hurricane of information that gripped all those looking for answers from governments, media, and scientific bodies. This visual diary - which I now refer to as Lockdown Diary - while seemingly innocuous and autobiographical on the surface, reveals something about bearing witness to the role of mass media in extracting, exploiting, and monetizing the suffering of others. The insidiousness of the '24 hour news cycle' is obviously not a new concept, but nonetheless is one worth re-contextualizing to account for the COVID-19 pandemic and the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter protests we experience as this is written.
Day 2 and Day 3, 2020.
Throughout the majority of the diary there is a clear sense of repetition, of the mundane, that many of us felt during lockdown. The format of each day's drawing would be unintentionally similar: sketches of coping mechanisms or conversations in the personal sphere, quickly illustrated screenshots from the digital, and many, many headlines from a variety of mass media sources. In the beginning the diary functioned as a way to seek answers and some grounding, by bearing witness, amidst overwhelming emotional, sociopolitical, and financial uncertainty. In all sorts of ways the personal felt very much political. While the first two weeks of diary entries speak to what personal life was like at the time - fear, anxiety, friends contracting the virus, messages to family, Zoom calls, automated alert messages from the government, BBC headlines, Boris' nightly briefings, and Vitamin C supplements - there is a shift between Day 19 and Day 28 when it begins to engage with information and news much more actively, rather than passively via the BBC or the government briefings.
In Day 28 we can see a couple new dimensions to the diary. Alongside the usual health and wellness illustrations, and an illustrated headline that the 'Himalayas come into view for the first time in 30 years in Northern India', there is a scribbled note saying "?intersectionality of virus demographics?" and a couple quotes skeptically questioning the often declared 'exponential curves of coronavirus cases' often stated in the news as being misleading due to the fact that the number of diagnostic tests were also increasing exponentially. Beside that quote there is an asterisk saying, "I don't know what I'm talking about and am just trying to sort through the information/misinformation like us all". It is at this point, with these two scribbled questions, that the diary more overtly becomes a response to a) selection bias, particularly when having to choose what to illustrate from a seemingly endless supply of new information, and b) the impact of the media in regards to the crisis - whether that impact is in the form of information, misinformation, fear-mongering, or otherwise.
Explicit, illustrated examples of this come in the next few diary entries where we see: "Trump says US will halt funding to WHO" due to the US government's supposed distrust of China's COVID-19 statistics, citations from alternative news sources like 'Perspectives on the Pandemic / Dr. David Katz', ECDC raw data concerning COVID-19 cases in the UK as opposed to reported statistics, and significantly, a headline from The Guardian claiming that "Failure to publish data on BAME deaths could put more lives at risk, MPs warn".
Day 1, 2020.
While there are similarities which will be addressed later, Lockdown Diary was a departure from the vast majority of work done throughout my time on the MFA program: exasperating detail was traded in for immediacy in both drawing style and in its content. At the time, and even now, the idea of making work about anything other than the pandemic seemed impossible, given how all-encompassing it was at its peak. Graphite, charcoal, and micro-erasers were traded in for ink, distinct and irreversible. In terms of method, there was a vague idea - which would be quickly abandoned - to try and be as balanced and 'beneficial' in reporting my day as possible: show the good, show the bad, show the therapeutic, show the informative. In Day 1, you find illustrations of my brother and a friend. I had moved into my brother's apartment just as things were beginning to collapse, as I had been spinning out of control on my own. In the drawing you see the first day of what working from home looked like for those of us who were privileged enough to be able to. There are the words 'flattening the curve' scribbled in comic lettering, and an associated graph meant to explain the term. A term that would begin as an explanation of epidemiological protocol, and end as everything from a mantra or a message of comfort, to a searing indictment or harrowing warning. Graphs of flattened curves or dramatic peaks, alongside images of the Coronavirus microbe, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and face-masks, would be among the semiotics that spammed our attention throughout the pandemic. Rolls of toilet paper, screenshots of meditation apps, inspiring social-media posts, and calming headlines of 'climate change reversal' feature as illustrations in the first few days of the diary.
Day 28, 2020.
Day 30, Day 34, Day 39, and Day 45, 2020.
It was here in the pandemic where the diary begins to slip into something of a conspiratorial rabbit-hole or, at the very least, there begins to be a visible swinging between opposing conspiratorial narratives surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are going to extrapolate the personal to the political, it is important to mention what the obsessive compulsive consuming of media provided me with during this time, and likely would have for many others. Namely, the illusion of reinstating control during a time of complete uncertainty and relative helplessness. And with trust in the mainstream media wavering, for the reasons that follow below, the diary clearly begins to feature much more alternative information.
So, at around Day 30, faith in the government's capacity to responsibly handle the crisis in a transparent and equitable way began to seriously diminish. The UK government admitted to "procurement issues" and "stockpile shortages" when it came to PPE despite the scientific community speaking on the seriousness of the virus since early January, government advice for the public became notoriously ambiguous, and Boris Johnson was alleged by the Sunday Times to have skipped 5 Cobra meetings in the early preparations for the virus. Even the scientific advice, that we had been told the country would so faithfully follow, became politicized. Jenny Harris and Patrick Valance were both found to contradict their advice on separate occasions for the seeming purpose of covering for the government's inability to meet diagnostic testing requirements. Not to mention what later transpired when both Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist, and Dominic Cummings, the chief advisor to the PM, both broke lockdown guidance on various occasions.
Government transparency was non-existent despite lengthy daily briefings, and much of the mainstream British press was simply regurgitating Boris Johnson's populism. Between Day 39 and Day 47 in the diary, the reader finds images of Donald Trump espousing bringing "a very powerful light... inside the body", Elon Musk tweeting "FREE AMERICA NOW", the Telegraph reporting "No case of a child passing coronavirus to an adult exists", a meme showing a metaphorical ruling class performatively clapping for essential workers as an embodied virus stabs them, and Kim Jong-un re-appearing in public after supposedly 'faking his own death'.
In Day 48, in a small illustration recreating a BBC news tracker, there is the headline, 'Conspiracist David Icke's channel deleted by Youtube'.
Despite governments' insistence upon condescending towards and withholding information from their publics, and an almost exclusively white-male-owned Westminister-centric media that seemed to commentate on what politicians were doing rather than scrutinizing it, social media companies introduced 'fact-checking' across their platforms which would take down any posted information deemed false or potentially harmful. While not an inherently destructive endeavor, this does further speak to the climate of uncertainty experienced throughout the pandemic. The implementation of fact-checking on social and new media posts visually re-instated a notion that all information and narratives were to be questioned, but that the final authority of censorship lay with the State - despite having already been shown to be a source of misinformation themselves.
Day 52 exemplifies exactly this point. In the top left corner, a bottle of Vitamin D with the caption 'Vitamin D deficiency as a potential risk factor for severe COVID-19'. Something that I will revisit in this discussion is the way that the UK government individualized risk and blame throughout the crisis. One way this was achieved was through the refusal to discuss scientifically proven ways of strengthening your immune system during a period of extended stress and deprivation. I certainly cannot begin to say whether Vitamin D supplementation reduces risk at all with something like COVID-19, but what the diary is questioning is a government and media not only unwilling to even discuss preventative health practices, but actively suppress those discussions in new media via 'fact-checking' softwares. Instead of these open channels of discussion, the government and media provided us with more hollow, performative displays. In the center of Day 52, we find a drawing of the RAF Red Arrows doing a 'fly-over' in support of the NHS. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the page an article title, "BAME communities disproportionately impacted by COVID crisis".
On Day 53, there is the image of Ahmaud Arbery - a 25 year old black man who was shot and killed by two white vigilantes while he was out jogging. Adjacent is a separate illustration of the Queen saying that the "streets are not empty as filled with love".
Day 48, Day 52, and Day 53, 2020.
Assorted details from Lockdown Diary, 2020
There cannot be a discussion of the mass media's relationship with the pandemic without also discussing fear-mongering, and this is reflected in the pages of Lockdown Diary. Particularly by this point, Day 55, many people had become viscerally aware of a media agenda to spread and capitalize off of panic and fear - which need to be distinguished from proportionate concern, preparation, or pragmatic guidance.
In a semiotic analysis, we should point to prevailing images like the COVID-19 microbe, the face-mask, supermarket hoarding, PPE, and overrun hospital wards. Images that were plastered across screens, newspapers, and official government briefings. Images of viral microbes in blood-red made up the backgrounds for news anchors globally, news outlets re-used images of exceptionally overrun Northern Italian hospital wards to illustrate other hospitals around the world, headlines about panic-buying functioned to create more panic-buying and hoarding. By the 16th of March, much earlier on in the pandemic, COVID-19 had already been mentioned in the media over 2 billion times.
The language of war was common amongst politicians, and echoed incessantly by the media. Boris Johnson upon multiple occasions used rhetoric describing: "regulations we have not seen in peace or war", "a most vicious threat", the nation's "fight against the disease", "the frontline", and that "in this fight each and every one of us is directly enlisted". This is to say nothing of Donald Trump's claim to being "a wartime President". News headlines regurgitated this: "It's war on the virus", "volunteer NHS army to tackle 'mass epidemic'", and "War on Covid-19", to name just a few.
I think it is worth questioning the purpose and impact of this sort of rhetoric, and I believe that - retrospectively - this is what Lockdown Diary seeks to do. On an individual level, fear-mongering preys on those of us misguidedly trying to wrestle control back from an uncontrollable situation. In a 24 hour news cycle that is competing for attention at every hour of every day, headlines are incentivized to be bigger, more dramatic, and more unsettling.
On a collective level, this wartime propaganda started by the government and spread by the media functioned to individualize risk and blame. If we are in a "war" or "a battle" then sacrifice is to be expected, and governments can evade scrutiny for the damage they have done and continue to do to the NHS and other healthcare services. As one ICU nurse said, "Calling us heroes just makes it okay when we die", when they are unwillingly martyrized. 'Clapping for our carers' is nothing more than a performative gesture that, at best, seeks to paper over the cracks of a broken system and at worst further concretizes the conditions of inequity and oppression that things like the pandemic only exacerbate.
On Day 55 in the diary, we see the introduction of the UK government's slogan to "Stay Alert, Control The Virus, Save Lives". Underneath, there is a meme parodying Boris Johnson's cryptic, ambiguous 'guidance' to the public. The 'Stay Alert' campaign ultimately served as another way for a Tory government to depoliticize their response, avoid taking ownership of a public response to the crisis, and instead shift responsibility onto the individual. 'Stay Alert', otherwise it is your fault. The message seemed to be - screamed across media outlets around the country - that there is no such thing as a public administration that can solve the crisis better than the free market, in the form of a purchasable vaccine if and when it arrives. All the while, people across the country - disproportionately in BAME communities and care-homes - continued to suffer and die. All the while, people were dying at an accelerated rate from suicide, heart disease, and undiagnosed cancers, terrified to seek help or visit hospitals due to the hysteria perpetuated by mass media, and allowed to persist by the government.
To re-focus the discussion, is it any wonder then that all of us struggling to find some agency within this pandemic and infodemic, would begin to seek out alternative sources of media, narrative, or conspiracy. Something which is clearly stated across the pages of Lockdown Diary. "No doubt is allowed", reads Day 54. "Experts say" and "One recent report", scribbled on Day 61. "BAME deaths urgently need to be understood" and "Danish experts are confused after they've seen no rise in infections over 4 weeks after easing lockdown", says Day 65. "The BBC and the journalism of fear" and "I did not get sober for this bullshit", on Day 71.