The Quarantine Atlas

Mapping Global Life Under COVID-19


By Laura Bliss

By A Bloomberg CityLab Project

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The Quarantine Atlas is a poignant and deeply human collection of more than 65 homemade maps created by people around the globe that reveal how the coronavirus pandemic has transformed our physical and emotional worlds, in ways both universal and unique. Along with eight original essays, it is a vivid celebration of wayfinding through a crisis that irrevocably altered the way we experience our environment.

In April 2020, Bloomberg CityLab journalists Laura Bliss and Jessica Lee Martin asked readers to submit homemade maps of their lives during the coronavirus pandemic. The response was illuminating and inspiring. The 400+ maps and accompanying stories received served as windows into what individuals around the world were experiencing during the crisis and its resonant social consequences. Collectively, these works showed how coronavirus has transformed the places we live, and our relationships to them.

In The Quarantine Atlas, Bliss distills these stunning submissions and pairs them with essays by journalists and authors, as well as notes from the original mapmakers. The result is an enduring visual record of this unprecedented moment in human history. It is also a celebration of the act of mapping and the ways maps can help us connect and heal from our shared experience.



On a warm afternoon in the early months of the pandemic, my daughter dressed up like a spider and danced in the backyard. Her modern dance class had gone virtual, and the recital would be on video. She put on a black leotard with felt spider arms and set up an iPad to film her routine. My wife and I weren’t allowed to watch this, so we masked up, leashed up the dog, and headed out on another aimless walk.

The routine of these circuits around the neighborhood had already worn a familiar groove into our heads; only the dog managed to find fresh joy in the experience every day. We’d taken to cutting through strange alleys and wandering farther from the house, longing to see something new. In time we found something: In another backyard, several blocks from ours, there was another little girl dancing around in a different homemade spider costume.

This strange scene turned out to not be that strange, once we figured it out; here, apparently, was another member of my daughter’s dance class. They were dancing together, but apart. But it still lingers as one of those moments that seemed to capture the uncanniness of life under lockdown. After months of few opportunities to explore beyond the immediate surroundings, our senses became highly attuned to minute changes in the environment—a fresh bumper sticker on a parked car, new yard signs, the status of area home-improvement projects, an unusually fat squirrel. On Nextdoor, the neighbor-centric social media platform, other homebound residents appeared to be similarly starved for novelty. Amid complaints about leaf blower noise and sketchy visitors, posters announced, “Weird cloud!” and asked, “What’s this snake?” We marveled at mundanity.

A trope of the early pandemic was that Generation Xers like myself, by dint of our deep childhood exposure to post-apocalyptic pop culture and facility with TV-saturated self-isolation, were “made for this shit,” as New York’s Will Leitch wrote in March 2020. We believed that watching The Day After and The Andromeda Strain as children equipped our cohort with the emotional tools to endure quarantines, field hospitals, and whatever other horrors the pandemic was likely to serve up; their plots taught us that institutions like governments and modern science were likely to fail in their efforts to overcome the threat. Plus, while Boomers and Millennials balked at the deprivations of lockdowns, we were too freighted with family responsibilities to want to go out. The time to stock up and hunker down had come, as we always knew it would, and we were prepared for what awaited.

In truth, we were not remotely made for this shit, and whatever generational advantage we may have initially possessed evaporated as the months ground on and the long-term miseries of parenting and caregiving under COVID-ized conditions gnawed away at our sanity. The coronavirus crisis also failed to live up to the promise it initially held to my generation of cynics, in that it did not provide much in the way of satisfying entertainment. The pandemic was a kind of anti-spectacle, visible only as things that were not there and distractions we couldn’t pursue. Instead of city-swallowing tidal waves and flaming skyscrapers, we got empty buses and closed bars, uncrowded highways, and heaps of takeout containers. Among those who could stay home and stay healthy, at least, the human suffering of COVID-19 in overwhelmed emergency rooms and nursing homes might as well have been happening on another planet.

That’s why the images in this book are such valuable documents, in that they allow us to clearly see a phenomenon that was, to many of us, largely invisible: the precise shape and texture of lives broken and reassembled by a catastrophe whose dimensions remained just beyond our field of vision. These hand-drawn depictions of personal worlds collapsed to the neighborhood scale are full of the kind of mundane marvels that landmarked the lockdown lives of others. And they offer something that spiking infection graphs and more traditional depictions of the pandemic’s toll don’t—a sense that we were all, in various and very different ways, engaged in an epic feat of shared survival.

We’re all in this together. The pandemic was just weeks old when this oft-expressed sentiment was exposed as risibly false, so vast was the gulf between how people of different means and persuasions experienced the disease and its disruptions. The waves of outbreaks and lockdowns that rippled on for months splintered the species into often-warring camps marked by geography, ideology, age, and affluence.

Still, it’s worth trying to recapture the basic truth of the statement. Though it didn’t feel like it, we became witnesses to a once-in-a-lifetime astonishment. A pandemic marching remorselessly across the planet, the great cities of the world stilled overnight, scientists scrambling to combat a viral invader—this was the stuff of the disaster movies Gen X watched as kids. But in real life, it was a crisis that often played out not as a global blockbuster but as a series of drawing-room dramas in homes and hospital hallways and apartments and backyards, each one isolated from the others, unseeable and unknowable.

It will be the task of the generation that truly was born for this shit—young people who came of age in the pandemic—to tell the truest stories about this crisis, and to prepare for the future ones. Though they were less vulnerable to the virus itself, teens and tweens like my own saw the disease claim great chunks of their childhoods, marking their adult years in ways that the grown-ups can’t imagine. For some, the “lost year” of the pandemic is leaving educational gaps and emotional scars; others have adapted and even thrived, as kids raised amid disaster and disruption often do. If we’re lucky, COVID quarantine could end up being just one more weird thing in the long string of inexplicable incidents that is childhood. When they become adults, they’ll share something amazing with billions of survivors their age, and maybe they’ll be able to explain to the rest of us what it all meant.

Until then, we can only gape at the sheer scale of this collective human experience, a natural wonder so vast and diffuse that it defied all our efforts to contain it. We can study the maps that others left behind. And then we can see, at least in glimpses, the web that caught us all.

David Dudley, 2021


Laura Bliss, San Francisco, California, United States

Why Maps Mattered during the Pandemic

Laura Bliss

Toward the end of 2020, I interviewed an archaeologist who—while locked out of her lab due to university health restrictions—was collecting photographs of COVID-19’s stamp on public spaces. Latex gloves and polypropylene masks, carelessly discarded in streets, parks, and gutters, featured prominently. She related a horrifying belief: Eventually, these non-decomposable medical accessories would form their own geological layer, a permanent mark of the annus horribilis 2020 in our earthly strata.

Whether or not that particular impact is ever revealed, others will be, because archivists, librarians, photographers, and scientists preserved all manner of pandemic-era media. While the coronavirus infected millions, shut down the global economy, and set the table for social and political foment, they saved masks, gloves, and social distancing floor stickers; screenshots from Zoom and online virus-trackers; photographs of food bank lines, restaurant parklets, and mobile morgues; videos of ritualized pot-banging for health workers; anti-vax conspiracy paraphernalia; and so much more.

Such images and ephemera form a kind of “history from below,” to borrow a phrase from The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson’s book about the birth of epidemiology in 1850s London. “Most world-historic events—great military battles, political revolutions—are self-consciously historic to the participants living through them,” he writes. Pandemics are world-changing, too, “but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folks, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity.” Johnson is pausing to marvel at the fact that modern readers can still discover, in minute detail, the daily habits of long-dead Londoners who lived near what turned out to be an infected pump because they were interviewed by John Snow, the physician who helped crack the origins of cholera by mapping their cases.

Social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle probably place us in a more self-conscious era than those who lived through the infectious diseases of yore. But it’s still true that the sea changes of the COVID era were lived by regular people. If you or a loved one tested positive for the virus, the symptoms, course, and probable origin of the infection—jotted down by a doctor or entered into a health department database—became part of the public health record, available to be studied by science for decades to come. Even if you didn’t, your days of sheltering inside, wearing a mask, waiting on taped-up sidewalks, and sacrificing the social time that might have made it all go down easier but was precisely the thing that could kill you: All of that, too, was part of the global socio-political inflection point known as COVID-19, and you were as much a player as anyone. Historians have the archives to prove it.

But what pictures, data, and even fossilized personal protective equipment can’t capture is what it felt like to live through a horizonless public health disaster. We have harrowing mental health statistics whose implications have yet to be fully reckoned with, such as the tripled rate of depression among US adults, or the one in four young US adults who have contemplated suicide. But what about the specific sadness of a teacher using Zoom in front of an empty classroom, or the fear of a recent graduate navigating the virus on his commute to a grocery store? What about the exhaustion of a parent balancing her work-from-home routine with the demands of two young children, or the pleasure of birdsong suddenly audible against the absence of neighborhood traffic? Such heartfelt ephemera is harder to quantify.

That’s what makes the book you’re holding so valuable. The Quarantine Atlas documents a piece of the emotional turbulence of the world turning upside down. It presents 65 maps made by people living all over the world during the peaks and valleys of the pandemic, paired with stories they shared. It also includes eight original essays (six of them accompanied with cartography-inspired illustrations by Jennifer Maravillas) that illuminate our changed relationships to our homes, neighborhoods, natural environments, work settings, and other places physical and psychological. All together, the pages before you are a multi-paned window into how the virus transformed our outer and inner landscapes. Born of the twilight hours the world spent at once together and apart, the sum of its parts makes a collective work of art.

How did this project come to be? A few weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, an estimated three billion people around the world were told by their governments to stay at home. As social, economic, and political orders turned inside out, my colleague and CityLab’s audience engagement editor Jessica Lee Martin and I had the idea to ask readers to document how the pandemic was reshaping their homes, communities, and everyday spaces in real-time. We published a call-out to readers asking them to create homemade maps and reflect on their new lockdown lives. In MapLab, an email newsletter I write about how cartography intersects with the news, I shared an example: a square-mile-ish grid of my neighborhood in San Francisco, shown with the nearby hospital emanating anxious flash marks from a rooftop siren added for emphasis.

The response overwhelmed us. With pens, paper, digital tools, tiles, clay, and whatever else was around, nearly five hundred people on six continents sent in breathtaking maps and stories. Worry and fear showed up often in these images, but so did inspiring quantities of resilience, hope, and creative spirit. Readers mapped the tight quarters of apartments in Bogor, Buenos Aires, and Istanbul. They mapped the one-kilometer neighborhood areas where they were allowed to range in southern Europe. They mapped the evaporation of work–life boundaries in homes across Canada, Pakistan, and South Africa, as millions found themselves teleworking, parenting, and grasping for sanity from kitchens and couches. Others mapped the challenges and traumas faced by nurses, bus drivers, and other essential workers thrown directly into the path of a fatal disease.

The uncertainty, the tragedy, the stomach-churning inversion of domestic life: There was no precedent for this stuff, no Google Maps or Yelp to tell anyone how to navigate it. The pandemic tossed out plans for new jobs, visits, weddings, trips. It dried up prospects for work and romance. It taught us the phrase “flatten the curve” but tricked us when a flat curve still meant hundreds of thousands of people sick. As days, weeks, and months melted into slurry, simple narratives of progress, beginnings, and endings no longer held. “What is time?” went the semi-joking quarantine refrain.

COVID also exposed and exploited existing social inequalities so profoundly that the idea of “returning to normal” quickly became unfathomable. In the US, the size of our houses, the health of our finances, and the color of our skin were key preconditions determining life and death. When George Floyd was choked to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, it made the lethality of racism all the more undeniable. In honor of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the twenty-six-year-old woman—an essential worker—who was killed two months earlier by police in her Louisville apartment, millions poured into the streets around the world to protest anti-Black killings and systemic racism, despite health concerns.

Amid shock and upheaval, our pandemic mapping project struck a chord. By pinning down their upended lives to paper, readers could take stock of new, unthinkable circumstances and make them real and knowable to themselves and to others. They could plot observations of an unstable present and grasp relationships as they existed in the moment. Their maps capture specific feelings and ideas playing out in the tumultuous now, rather than concerning themselves too much with what might come next.

The maps also surface how many of COVID’s changes relate to location, distance, and geography. In some ways perspectives turned local; in other ways they widened to see the permeability of borders and bodies in the face of pathogens and aerosols. The boundaries between work, family, and leisure bled together inside the home, yet we also became hyper-aware when we left and re-entered, sanitizing, masking, and psychologically preparing for those transitions. We saw that where we live has much to do with how much risk we face, judging by the disproportionate infection rates in communities of color. Maps have a unique ability to construct meaning about place, and these maps show how individuals from diverse walks of life negotiated the world around them in new ways and with new eyes.

Yet maps can’t go all the places words can. This book also includes eight essays by writers who explore how COVID-19 transformed the places they know and their relationships to them. As you read in the foreword by CityLab editor David Dudley, few were prepared for what went down in 2020, not even a generation raised to expect institutional failure and apocalyptic sights. After this, you’ll hear from the artist, writer, and professor Taien Ng-Chan about how protest and a voyage around her room helped her reclaim a sense of belonging amid an alarming rise in anti-Asian hate.

The journalist Angely Mercado meditates on lives lost to COVID in her community in Queens, New York, and how mourning was cut off when a normal gathering space went off limits. Writing from Los Angeles, Geoff Manaugh, co-author of Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine


  • This gorgeous volume of maps and essays, ‘born of the twilight hours the world spent at once together and apart,’ is at once at a portrait of that time, an excavation of its contours, and an indelible account—often funny, sometimes sad, always revelatory—of how a microbe changed the ways that humans everywhere relate to place. A treasure.—Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, co-creator of Nonstop Metropolis and author of Names of New York
  • With vivid, intriguing maps drawn from perspectives both familiar and surprising, The Quarantine Atlas is a fascinating cartographic memoir of how COVID reconfigured the spaces around us. When future historians look back at the geographies of this extraordinary moment, they will almost certainly turn to The Quarantine Atlas as one of the exceptional artifacts of this era. Even if your bookshelves are already full of maps and atlases, this book will offer a provocative and many-voiced reconsideration of how we see ourselves through cartography. It challenges map readers to think about how visual depictions combine fact and feeling, chronicle and argument, partiality and universalism.—Garrett Dash Nelson, President & Head Curator, Leventhal Map & Education Center
  • “A visual archive of an unprecedented moment of spatial constraint, and the way we lived those limits in our homes, neighborhoods, and cities…. [These] maps show how people channeled their boredom and grief into bursts of creativity.”—Henry Grabar, Slate

On Sale
Apr 19, 2022
Page Count
288 pages

Laura Bliss

About the Author

Laura Bliss is a writer, reporter, and editor based in San Francisco. On staff at Bloomberg CityLab, she covers cities and the environment and writes the newsletter MapLab, which explores how maps illuminate the world around us. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, Los Angeles Review of Books, Sierra, WILDSAM’s guide to California, The Future of Transportation, and other publications. She hails from Los Angeles, where she formerly worked as an educator at the Natural History Museum and La Brea Tar Pits.

Bloomberg CityLab is committed to telling the story of the world’s cities, communities, and neighborhoods: How they function, the challenges they face, and potential solutions. Founded by urban theorist Richard Florida in 2011 under the aegis of the Atlantic Media Company, CityLab was acquired by Bloomberg Media in January 2020. With global issues such as climate change, income inequality, and new technologies affecting urban areas, CityLab is focused on ways to prosper together. CityLab is inspired by the concept that cities are laboratories for democracy, and embraces that spirit of experimentation in its journalism.

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