In early February, I was at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, in what would end up being my last trip to the archives for the foreseeable future. The upheaval that would ensue was not yet fathomable, but the gravity of the global health crisis was ominously apparent – it loomed in the building, in the hubbub of conversations among congregated officials outside conference rooms and among staff in the open areas of the WHO café.

WHO Headquarters, February 2020. Photo/Wonik Son.
WHO Headquarters, February 2020. Photo/Wonik Son.

News cameras had taken up residence near the entrance of the library, as reporters broadcast updates to a global public unaware of what was to come. The librarians, too, were drafted to the response effort. In addition to assisting me with each query I made for my work, they pored through papers and studies of previous outbreaks to make some sense of a virus they still knew little about.

I was an outsider observing the frenzied atmosphere of the WHO headquarters from the researcher’s desk, yet my own historical work had become intertwined with that present moment.

WHO Headquarters, February 2020. Photo/Wonik Son.My work on the WHO’s humanitarian images of the disabled involves imagined spaces, and the imagination of who populates those spaces. Who populates the disabled world, as suggested by UN photographs? Where do the disabled live?

Displacement facilitates this construction. First, via the imagination of disability as loss and fundamentally an incompleteness of bodies, perpetuated by images of children with twisted or missing limbs. Then through the medium itself: humanitarian images often displace their subjects from political, geographical, and temporal context. My research in Geneva on the WHO’s program of “community development” has taken me to look at visual languages of manuals created for global, non-specialist publics to rehabilitate disabled members in their community. Here, too, spaces are imagined – categorized to implement policy; to imagine a concept of “community” in order to define it and intervene in it.

Space in our own era seems to be facilitated in six-foot increments, with constantly shifting conceptions of the imagined population of “viral” spaces. Where is the virus from? Who dies from the virus? These notions of space and displacement seemed particularly relevant in the weeks that followed my trip in February.

In March came the increasing numbers in Daegu, South Korea, where my extended family live. Then, Italy. One by one, as events were shut and cancelled amidst rising cases, universities went with them, closing and sending staff and students away. I flew out of Cambridge back to New York before a UK travel ban would be put in effect; leaving with little certainty of the coming months, part of a mass, global, frenzied exodus of people before the deep stasis.

I write this as I complete a hundred days at home, across the river from a metropolis attempting to emerge from months of isolation, where tens of thousands have died, and where morgues set up on city streets have left a constant visual presence of death for another generation. Three months have passed, and down the parkway in New Jersey and throughout the country, lines still wait at food banks, just one indication of lasting reverberations of this pandemic, and the long road ahead.

The metaphor of war has been invoked often, perhaps because it is the only metric in which we can process the scale of loss – of life, economy, and spirit. Here, in a city where the language and symbolism of 9/11 still persist, people speak of medical first responders “deployed” to the front line of a war against an “invisible enemy.” In front of the conference room at the WHO headquarters, two plaques face each other, hanging on opposing columns. On one hangs an engraving of Dr. Carlo Urbani, the first WHO officer to identify SARS in 2003, who died from the disease while mounting a containment response in Vietnam. The other, an image of Dr. Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, a WHO epidemiologist who died from Ebola in 2019 while leading a response for that disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were the WHO’s war memorials – presented as martyrs in a perpetual global war against invisible foes.

Dr. Carlo Urbani, WHO.
Dr. Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, WHO.

The wilting flowers and rain-soaked image of Dr. Li Wenliang – the late Wuhan doctor censured for his early warning – that adorned the street in front of King’s College in March indicate that there are more to be added.

There is a general consensus in the study of world history that the global is local and the local is global. I speak of my personal narrative during this crisis amidst the unrelenting, impersonal scale of this lived history.

What we consume – the products of mass movement and transfer across geographies – sourced from different parts of the world and produced through the labor of those in different places. Global history, as one of interaction, establishes that the recipients of globalized patterns of movement of people and commodities are not passive, invisible actors.

Movement was manifested in the realization early in this crisis of global dependence on specific supply routes for crucial medical equipment. The irony of this moment is that in this world of contact tracing, social distancing, a moratorium on global travel, and a general sense of immobility – enforced by increased measures by states to track and record – the coronavirus challenges the boundaries of these “official” measures. The crisis has laid bare the failures of national systems: from the homeless who have died, unable to “stay at home,” to the stranded migrant workers and informal laborers across the globe, those who die or suffer the most are often invisible in the recordkeeping apparatus.

Transnational histories of movement always persist in this anarchic space, where historical subjects exist in areas out of reach of the nation state and challenge the stability and staticness of borders. Our work in UN histories, too, is one of negotiation – of interactions between officials and people “on the ground” who often live outside the official record, negotiating the ambiguous and fluid boundaries of intervention, depiction, and definition.

NYC, May 2020. Photo/Wonik Son.As we attempt to make historical sense of the scale of this pandemic, the lure of grand narratives looms large. If the debates surrounding reopening are any indication, amidst a resurgence of cases in the US, lives have often been conflated with economic value during this crisis. This has certainly been the impulse in histories of international organizations and development – stories told through the lens of large political actors and abstract national entities, and narrated through metrics designed to evaluate the success and failure of policies in terms of work productivity rather than quality of life. With the prospect of the US’ withdrawal from the WHO in the middle of this pandemic, the story of institutional bargaining will certainly endure.

The WHO and the UN have always been political actors, as participants privy to the political and funding power of its members. If anything, my visits to the WHO archives have been fraught with uncertainty, as member states were unwilling to see funds being used for anything other than programs with more immediately quantifiable or visible outputs. The archives always struggled with funding. I cannot imagine the disruption the past few months will bring to this access.

The past four decades have intensified debates, both internally and in global discourse, that paralleled those of the early years of the WHO and UN: What is the mandate of these organizations? What role does the UN play in a larger transnational system of interconnected institutions and communities? The 1980s and 1990s required a reselling of internationalism and transnationalism to the (Western) public, as a new skepticism spurred by privatization, deregulation, and reduced government spending in the West emerged and threatened to withhold continued funding. While the skepticism is not new, the prospect of US withdrawal this summer adds another complication to unprecedented times.

NYC, June 2020. Photo/Wonik Son.Historians will look back at this present moment, told through the material world of masks and respirators, and understood in the reimagining of the invisible – the faceless disease, the countless people lost, and the empty streets of grand metropolises, punctuated periodically by disembodied singing and 7pm cheers for first responders. Historians will also consider the eruption of boiling anger, embodied in global protest against state violence as the lives and deaths of those abandoned and rendered invisible in this extended crisis were partly manifested in the very tangible killing of George Floyd.

The history we do as UN, postwar, and global historians is very much lived in the present – present as participants in the archives, as we continue to live through a seemingly endless crisis, and only more relevant as the post-pandemic world begins to be painted and litigated.


Wonik Son