A/D/O by MINI | Preventing Pandemics

Journal

Health

Preventing Pandemics

How can design slow or stop the spread of infection? As the latest coronavirus continues to proliferate globally, we look at potential solutions past, present and future.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” is the phrase that keeps being repeated. The worst case scenario is too easy to imagine. Scenes of entire cities being decimated by a rapidly spreading super virus depicted in sci-fi thrillers can start to seem not just possible but probable realities. A new strain of coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, is the latest high-octane disease to permeate the media cycle and drive paranoia. As a result, several urban areas are in lock-down, supermarkets are being emptied, and international events such as Milan design week are being postponed or canceled.

There is no current indication that the outbreak is slowing or that a vaccine has been developed, so design will play a crucial role in preventing a full-blown pandemic. Whether it is a hospital built in ten days, cruise ships full of quarantined passengers, or backstocked face masks, the way we design for epidemics exposes our deepest phobias, vulnerabilities, and hopes. 

Designers have been quick to respond to this latest outbreak, as it continues to affect more and more parts of the world. Danielle Baskin has created masks with people’s faces printed on them, so that facial recognition software on personal devices can still be used. While this design raises concerns of privacy if the masks get into the wrong hands, similarly practical interventions may become more common.

Meanwhile, architect Sun Dayong released designs for a shield that uses UV to not only protect the wearer but to prevent further spread. Titled Be A Batman, the shield draws inspiration from bats – rumored to be the source of COVID-19 –, whose body temperatures rise while they fly, slowing the spread of a virus and allowing them to survive as hosts. Dayong’s UV heating mechanism remains conceptual as of now but a protective suit that could kill the virus is a novel approach.

Until suits or technologies like Dayong’s are developed, Chinese citizens improvising their own protective gear in response to a lack of supplies, treatment, and information. The Instagram account Shanghai Observed shows compilations of people in ad-hoc masks and even dogs in DIY suits. As of this week, images of Italy show similarly dystopian scenes of empty piazzas and self-made masks. This may be what living in a time of contagion (or the perception of it) looks like.

Sun Dayong designed his Be A Bat Man wearable shield in response to the recent coronavirus outbreak.

Preventing and responding to illness has long been an important factor in designing objects, buildings, and even city plans. Preceding the discovery of germ theory, the common belief was the theory of miasma – the idea that illness was spread through bad air. During the bubonic plague, foreboding beaked masks developed for doctors became an ubiquitous artifact. They were stuffed with herbs that masked the gruesome smells affiliated with the illness but did little in the way of preventing contagion. At the same time, pomanders – ornate herb stuffed jewelry that many European elite wore – were believed to prevent illness but only masked the associated smells. As germ theory in the 1800s came to light, many tools and approaches were rendered obsolete.

Leonardo Da Vinci, having survived close quarters with the plague, developed a schematic for a hygienic three-tiered city that would eliminate crowded allies, and separate commerce, housing and transport. Although it was never realized, his ambitious drawings and reasoning – outlined in the Paris Manuscript B – could have been effective. Even once germ theory was substantiated, the lack of antibiotics and treatments for many of the world's deadliest illnesses, meant that clean deliberate architecture was the best solution. 

Tuberculosis, a vicious and highly contagious killer was the original inspiration for sanitariums, buildings designed with the singular function of curing and preventing the spread of disease. While they were more effective at preventing the spread than curing it, they popularized a sterility and order that can be seen in some of the architecture of the time. Concepts of cleanliness, hygiene, and balconies to increase access to air flow were equally popular in modernist architecture, and Finnish architect Alvar Aalto famously designed the functionalist Paimio Sanitorium.

Alvar Aalto's Paimio Sanatorium was designed for treating and preventing the spread of long-term illnesses like Tuberculosis. Image by Leon Liao, used under creative commons licensing.

These designs are not dissimilar to systems of quarantine currently taking place globally to contain the coronavirus. In places where infected patients have been identified – from individual hotels and the Diamond Princess cruise ship, to regions of Italy and Iran and the entirety of China’s Hubei province – the assumption is that containment is the best way to prevent spread until a cure is found. Hospitals are not only hyper-sterile places but perform increasingly as buttresses, giving rise to a defensive quarantine architecture and enforcement technologies. A video of shouting drones shepherding people back home in Hubei went viral last week, a bizarre insight into how thoroughly quarantine could be moderated. 

Focused on the past and future of quarantine and epidemiology, Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh are currently co-writing a book due to be published next year. Speaking to The Journal, Manaugh described the artifacts of quarantine as “Giving spatial form to medical uncertainty.” He continued, “when you have a disease that cannot be countered by medicine, we have to rely on this seemingly medieval technique: spatial separation.” 

As big tech interventions like the shouting drones become more prevalent, Manaugh foresees an increasingly systematized database. He described how enforced temperature stations, QR codes, and drones raise issues of surveillance that become moral. “Many of the things we are seeing in China are what we may have forecast five or 10 years into the future, but they are what are happening today,” he said. The US secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, told  the senate: “We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to virus” – a reality that complete quarantine is impossible.

Johns Hopkins' map provides a real-time overview of the COVID-19 spread.

Along with systems of quarantine, education and the way information is conveyed are huge components of containment and reaction. Misinformation is a real threat. As we have seen with the miscalculated responses to contagious illnesses such as Ebola and AIDS, the spread of disease can be prevented by public education. A map developed by Johns Hopkins showing the live spread of the epidemic, is now available to the public. It is intended to serve as a tool to propel scientific understanding of the epidemic, as well as to increase the public perception of risk.  

In an effort to increase public understanding of disease spread, David Harvey worked on two exhibits during his tenure as the former Senior Vice President of Exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History: Epidemic (1999) and Countdown to Zero (2015-2017). “Balancing education and managing visitors’ fears requires care in planning and design,” he acknowledged.

Harvey explained that in order to make sure the shows struck the right note, the museum collaborated with scientists to develop exhibitions that “conveyed powerful messages of empowerment, empathy with victims, and an understanding of the power of science, coupled with societal action, to improve human lives.” Harvey predicts that if a new show were to be developed today, it would attract large crowds. 

TV shows such as Pandemic (a term that COVID-19 has yet to be officially declared) also explore the likelihood of outbreak and spread – and provide advice to prevent it. But when the main defense is simply washing your hands, it is difficult to feel prepared and easy to feel vulnerable. The combination of paranoia and legitimate risk will surely continue to fuel new solutions, means of quarantine, and hopefully a rapid creation of vaccines for this and future epidemics. And design is guaranteed to play a huge part.

This article forms part of a series on Warning!, one of four curatorial themes that A/D/O is exploring in 2020.

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.