On the wooded site of a former golf course in suburban Washington, archivists are building a global time capsule of the pandemic. The digital repository — to be housed at the National Library of Medicine, a Cold War-era fortress appropriately built for fearful times — holds 30 million documents from 9,000 sources, with links to similar troves from Beijing to Paris.
Reading like a great international scrapbook, the archive also serves as a warning. Its podcasts, photographs, videos, health documents, website captures, news stories and social media posts will reveal to future generations what we did wrong in 2020.
Some things, they’ll learn, went surprisingly right, particularly in east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Even in nations still counting their dead, the archive tells us, humanity stepped up. Our descendants will be moved by the selfies of a London nurse, her skin blotchy with fatigue and mask marks after a nine-hour coronavirus shift. They’ll cheer the Maryland distillery that halted vodka production to make hand sanitizer. They’ll muse about the Italian radio station that consoled a town as its nonni died alone. They’ll hear the praises sung for our Usain Bolts of vaccine science.
But the graduate students of the 22nd century — like some of the archive’s researchers today — might be most struck by our colossal failures.