We Need a Map

COVID-19 offers the chance to move ahead with a shared sense of direction.

Posted Apr 30, 2020

Patricia Prijatel, used with permission
Source: Patricia Prijatel, used with permission

The oldest surviving world map is the Babylonian Imago Mundi, which is somewhere between 2,500 and 2,700 years old and is carved in stone. In the millennia since then, maps evolved to handwritten, then printed, and now more than a billion people use Google Maps a day—or at least they did when we all had somewhere to go.

Maps, of course, tell us how to get from one place to another. But they’re far more than that. By helping us navigate, they help us control the world around us, to understand and prepare for what comes next. They illustrate the world and help us mentally contain it. That’s why the word "navigate" has grown to mean many different kinds of journeys—spiritual, cultural, psychological, economic.

The lack of a good map to guide us is one of the biggest problems facing us with the COVID-19 quarantine. We have no agreed-upon plan for where to go from here or how to get there. Which road gets us to safety? Which is a dead-end? Which leads to a cliff?

Experts and politicians wrangle about “opening up the country,” and we all look forward to returning to whatever normal might look like now. We want to get out of our homes, but we need to know what steps to take next. Most important, we need clarity and calm, measured assurance on how long it might take, which routes are quickest, which ones safest, and what kinds of bumps and detours we’ll hit along the way.

Yet, each state is going in a slightly different direction. Iowa, where I live, is opening up some rural counties that have not been affected or in which cases have decreased steadily, but there are no barriers in place to keep out those of us in hard-hit counties. Colorado is easing some restrictions gradually. Georgia, Texas, and Florida are opening up faster than most, including beaches. In some places, churches are encouraged to resume services. 

It's like we are living in different worlds. In fact, we have been. We've not been following the same map for at least a generation. The wealthy and connected know how and where to get the care they need. The poor have roadblock after roadblock.

Getting ourselves out of our lockdown is a chance to draw one path for all of us, one that would connect us, heal our divides, and ultimately help us beat this virus and others that might come. Will that happen? Not so far.

Maps are generally developed by experts who know the terrain. In the case of COVID-19, that would mean researchers, doctors, nurses, infectious disease experts. People who have studied for this moment and have the tools and experience to draw a map out of this pandemic with clarity.

At first, the maps might have flaws, just as that Babylonian one did—and, actually, just as Google Maps does. Maps evolve with time, as those who travel the routes find errors and add details. And the reality changes—new towns grow, streets appear, streets close. The virus mutates, testing improves, vaccines are developed. 

But move too fast on a map, or move without listening to experts, or move after listening to the loudest and not the smartest voices, and your roads can be booby-trapped. If we could all just please step back and yield the floor to those who are trained in planning the way out of this crisis, we’d all feel a bit more secure about where we are going in the future. It’s the sense of direction we are sorely lacking.