Emptiness and COVID-19 Cartography

From the Series: Emptiness

Image by Ricardo Hernandez.

NO2 amounts have dropped with the coronavirus quarantine, Chinese New Year, and a related economic slowdown. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using modified Copernicus Sentinel 5P data processed by the European Space Agency.

Let us take a look at the now-famous satellite images produced by NASA and the European Space Agency comparing China’s atmospheric pollution between January 1 and 20, 2020, and February 10 and 25, 2020. The first map, produced on the basis of data collected between January 1 and 20, 2020, projects Mean Atmospheric NO2 Density in colors graded from white (for 0 values) through blue and yellow to red (for values equal of higher to 500) over a “flat” Mercator cartographic projection of China. The main pollution cluster covers Beijing, Tianjin, and the eastern Yellow River basin (though the river itself is invisible in the map), while smaller clusters cover Shanghai, Chongqing, and the Pearl River Delta. Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic at the time, is perceivable as a small light orange dot. The second map projects similar values, based on data collected between February 10 and 25. In contrast to the first map, where large areas are colored deep orange to deep red, in the second map significant values can be seen only over a limited number of localized spots, such as Shanghai and Hong Kong. The original article on NASA’s Earth Observatory website mentioned that, while a drop in atmospheric pollution in the region is usually observable during the Lunar New Year, “researchers believe the decrease is more than a holiday effect or weather-related variation.”

This may at first sight appear an innocuous image, simply one that visualizes how the imposition of anti-epidemic measures in the north of China, and especially the extensive lockdowns and quarantines since the end of January, have reduced NO2 emissions in the region. From a critical perspective, however, the joy and wonderment with which this image was reproduced, commented on, and received by scientific papers, popular science outlets, and the general media may be seen as part of a broader pattern of what Nayanika Mathur (2020) has identified as an “animals are flourishing in the absence of humans” way of narrating or indeed dramatizing the pandemic (see also Dzenovska 2020; Searle and Turnbull 2020). This forms part of a pandemic imaginary that has long depicted the “next pandemic” as a tropical disease that will metonymically “re-tropicalize” the world by allowing “nature” to take over the space hitherto occupied by humanity (Lynteris 2019). Yet, in this short essay, I would like to argue that the pronounced “emptiness” in this satellite map also contributes to and fosters another aspect of the pandemic imaginary, which relates not so much to a pandemic emptiness induced by the retreat of humanity as a whole, as to ways of imagining China as a category of pathogenic “fullness” (Hromadžić, this series) that threatens the globe with a series of existential risks, including climate change and infectious disease emergence; ideas that in themselves are connected to emptiness as Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2016) have shown in their treatise on the mythocosmological variants of the end of the world.

In order to understand the operation of NASA’s cartographic comparison in the pandemic imaginary, we need to situate and examine it within the genealogy of the visual trope of the innocuous-looking but in fact colonially inflected comparison between “before” and “after” images. As Ari Larissa Heinrich (2008) has shown in The Afterlife of Images, “before-after” medical images played a key role in the medicalization and pathologization of China in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. With Christian missions operating in the country eager to demonstrate the effects of Western medicine and the benevolence of the church, medical missionary publications became the host of images of pre- and post-operation Chinese patients, suffering from external tumors and fibromas. These were later adopted in standard medical texts, like W. Hamilton Jefferys and James L. Maxwell’s (1910) iconic first edition of The Diseases of China. What the juxtaposition of these before-after images achieved was not simply to show the success of medical operations, but also to underline how China’s salvation (both medical and theological) supposedly depended on Western intervention. Underlying how the extraction of tumors rhymed, in colonial and missionary agendas, with the aspired erasure of Chinese culture, Heinrich (2008, 98) has shown how some “before-after format” photographs depicted the cure of Chinese patients not simply through the absence of their tumors, but also through the absence of “the culturally pathological specimen of the man’s queue” which “appears to have been successfully excised.”

The NASA map possesses uncanny similarities with this visual genre. With atmospheric pollution appearing like a cancer growth over the body of China in the “before” image, the “after” image provides a sensation of relief and “blue skies” hope. What is not visualized are the thousands of people dying as a result of COVID-19 and the millions of lives disrupted by anti-epidemic measures. Rather than simply trivializing these, however, the image in fact fuels the darkest Sinophobic desires in its Western audiences: the idea that the real disease of China is not the virus but its “large” population, the fear that this population is a driving force behind both zoonotic emergence (through notions of “crowdedness”) and the current climate emergency, and the unconfessed hope that a reduction of this population may mark some sort of environmental salvation. While dissociating itself from the belligerent Yellow Peril narratives exemplified in works like Jack London’s (1910) “genocidal fantasy” The Unparalleled Invasion (Swift 2002, 68), NASA’s comparative cartography of the atmospheric impact of COVID-19 in China reproduces a Malthusian imaginary (itself part and parcel of different forms of Sinophobia and its connection to epidemics; Lynteris 2018) which essentially allows a reading of the COVID-19 epidemic in China as a “cure” for the country’s “overpopulation” and for the climate emergency. Whereas the lifting of lockdowns in China has led to a return of the pre-COVID-19 levels of pollution (with satellite maps covering this rebound), the short-term “cure” of the atmosphere and the image of China’s “empty skies” will surely become another powerful mytheme in the incurably colonial pandemic imaginary of Western societies.


Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2016. The Ends of the World. Translated by Rodrigo Nunes. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press.

Dzenovska, Dace. 2020. “Emptiness (Part I): The Empty Streets of Blackpool.” COMPAS.

Jefferys, W. Hamilton, and James L. Maxwell. 1910. The Diseases of China, Including Formosa and Korea. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston’s Son and Company.

Heinrich, Ari Larissa. 2008. The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Lynteris, Christos. 2018. “Yellow Peril Epidemics: The Political Ontology of Degeneration and Emergence.” In Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World, edited by Franck Billé and Sören Urbansky, 35–59. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Lynteris, Christos. 2019. Human Extinction and the Pandemic Imaginary. London: Routledge.

Mathur, Nayanika. 2020. “Telling the Story of the Pandemic.” Somatosphere, May 11.

Searle, Adam, and Jonathon Turnbull. 2020. “Resurgent Natures? More-Than-Human Perspectives on COVID-19.” Dialogues in Human Geography 10, no. 2: 291–95.

Swift, John N. 2002. “Jack London’s ‘The Unparalleled Invasion’: Germ Warfare, Eugenics, and Cultural Hygiene.” American Literary Realism 35, no. 1: 59–7 1.