April 1 marks the first week that Milwaukee, and the entire State of Wisconsin, has been under the “Safer at Home” order issued by Governor Tony Evers, which took affect on Wednesday, March 25.
I have almost no photos from my traumatic experience living in China during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic. In 2003 I was still using a 35mm film camera, and conditions were so unpredictable – especially being a foreigner – that if I did go outside to get provisions I did not take my camera. Also, at that time, to be a foreigner walking around a quarantined city taking photos would earn unwelcome attention from the government.
Years later, now that I am home and another pandemic has landed on my doorstep, I feel the need to document what is happening – while being keenly protective of my own health. Documentary images can fill in the blanks of the narrow stories being told. As uncomfortable as it was for me to be outside during this crisis, as a photojournalist I felt it was my responsibility to provide a window for those who were stuck behind walls.
Editor’s Note: Under Article 13 Section J of the Emergency Order #12, newspapers, television, radio, and other media services are designated as essential businesses and operations in Wisconsin.
The current predictive computer model from COVID Act Now has a best case scenario for the coronavirus to ease in Wisconsin sometime between late May and early June, well beyond the original April 24 end date of the Governor’s declaration. That assumes the pandemic is brought swiftly under control, an expectation that is still possible but questionable considering the harmful pattern of the Federal government’s hostility and lack response.
Over the past week, I have made daily walks around downtown Milwaukee for hours each day taking photos of environmental conditions. Over 7 days I walked 41.4 miles on foot, and even trekked all the way to Bay View. Without having any personal conversations with people I saw along the way, my observations made a few things very clear.
Chief among them was that some people were simply not taking the stay at home order seriously. The new reality had not sunk in yet. Milwaukee was blessed with beautiful weather on March 25, the first day that the stay at home order went into effect. It appeared that people thought they were on vacation.
Since March 25, the city has felt very quiet in terms of its rhythm and bustle, but instead of an eerie atmosphere devoid of humanity it just felt like a Sunday afternoon. Because streets were less congested with traffic, but by no means a Zombie Apocalypse ghost town, construction crews were hard at work to make progress. Parts of downtown remained noisy because of this, particularly around the Warner Grand Theatre Building where MSO’s Symphony Center construction remains underway. Otherwise, the pulse of city was weaker.
Aside from the numerous dog walkers and fitness runners, the homeless population appeared to be the most noticeable. Whether they only stood out in the absence of regular downtown activity or the group became more mobile was hard to know from simple observation. It could be expected that people who have nothing felt that there was nothing for them to lose, and would act more brazen in going out when they should not. But lacking a home to take refuge, their options for shelter remain limited.
Yet people of privilege, perhaps the same ones who panic purchased toilet paper, seemed just as brazen about staying at home and being distant from others. It reminded me of many historical moments that we have seen performed in popular movies and TV shows. The most recent example was the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.” Residents gathered on a bridge at night to watch the nuclear reactor spew fire in the distance. Children were shown playing in the radioactive dust, which fell from the sky like snow. The bridge later became known as the “Bridge of Death” after reports that everyone who stood there allegedly died from radiation sickness.
COVID-19 is not radiation sickness, but it is still an invisible health menace. Even people who never become sick are still impacted. Young people, who are less at risk, face unemployment and the inability to access routine health care. Because of the slow incubation process, anyone who shows symptoms today contracted the coronavirus between 5 and 12 days prior. Asymptomatic carriers are fueling the pandemic, and people do not have to feel sick to spread the disease. The less than empty streets of Milwaukee underlined my perception that many people are in a period of denial or disbelief, that things will go back to normal in a couple weeks, and that view of “normal” will pick up exactly where things left off before the COVID-19 disruption.
But the trauma has not even begun to settle in yet. While many people across Milwaukee have lost their jobs over the past two weeks, the situation is still in a honeymoon phase. Pay may not be coming in, but rent is due today, on April 1, along with utilities, care payments, and credit card bills. Aside from the health scare, the economic pain has not hit equally, and will to come in waves. Many of the financial decisions made this week could have a longer social impact than the infectious contagion.
It is not unreasonable to wonder if the COVID-19 Recession could become a Depression. Reaction to this crisis is as polarized as everything else in our society. One side swings into full blown panic while the other swings into complete denial. There should be a more balanced approach that takes the situation seriously while not over-reacting.
This pandemic is a learning lesson for Milwaukee and the world, but it is hard to know what it will teach us. Even harder to predict how those lessons will be applied. These individual photos only show a narrow view of a familiar environment, from March 25 to March 31. But as a collection, their weight expresses an accurate representation of those conditions during that span of time.