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13 Coronavirus Photos That Could End Up in History Books

One day, when the pandemic is long behind us, you might see one of these iconic photographs and everything will come rushing back.

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Powerful images that say it all

Napalm Girl. The Falling Man. The V-J Day Kiss in Times Square. Each is a single photograph of a single moment in time. Yet each has the power not only to transport us right into that moment but also to evoke the cultural context in which that moment occurred, even if we weren’t actually there. “The images that stick with us—the ones that become iconic—are those that convey human emotion in a way that symbolize what a large group was thinking in that moment,” explains Lindsay Stewart, whose many years of working as a television news producer has given her insight into what makes an image powerful. “They’re the images we empathize with,” says Stewart, who now runs Stringr, a tech start-up that sources broadcast-news footage from independent videographers. “They’re the ones that speak for all of us.”

While iconic images tend to emerge in hindsight, Stewart gave Reader’s Digest the following insight into which coronavirus photos will likely stand the test of time. When you’re through, check out these other images that will define the era of social distancing.

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The loneliness of the essential worker

When Stewart looks at this photo of a lone woman wearing latex gloves and a facial covering that appears to be an N-95 respirator as she crosses a windy Brooklyn Bridge, she immediately imagines the woman’s story: An essential worker, the woman doesn’t have the luxury of sheltering at home. Wearing her personal protective gear, she’s made the difficult choice to trudge to work on foot despite less-than-friendly late-March weather conditions rather than subject herself to an increased risk of contracting the virus on public transportation. Here are 14 meaningful ways people are saying thank you to essential workers.

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Protecting the children

In this photo taken on January 20, children in Beijing wear makeshift protective gear—made from plastic bottles. Taken in the early days of the pandemic, this photo will stand as “a reminder of the lengths to which many of us have gone in order to protect our families from infection,” Stewart predicts. Of course, protective gear is only effective if you’re using it correctly.

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The magnitude of death

Taken on May 19, this photo—which shows a man wiping his brow as he helps dig a mass grave in the city of Manaus, Brazil, for some of the country’s 18,000-plus victims of coronavirus—viscerally conveys the utter “magnitude of death” wrought by COVID-19, Stewart tells Reader’s Digest. But the despair we’re witnessing is not just for the deceased. “We also feel sadness for this man,” Stewart adds. As he works tirelessly and seemingly endlessly to bury the dead, we’re reminded of how helpless we have all felt while facing this pandemic.

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Mary-Lou McCullagh, 83, and her husband Bob, 84, greet Axel Stirton, 2, the little boy who lives across the street through the closed windowBrent Stirton/Getty Images

Love and isolation

Mary-Lou McCullagh, 83, and her husband Bob, 84, are in isolation because of their advanced age and because Mary-Lou has a medical condition that places her at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 infection. The little boy pictured here, Axel, is their friend and neighbor, and he can no longer enter the McCullagh house because of the risks. There are “very powerful emotions” at work here, Stewart points out, and you don’t have to be elderly or a child to feel them. On the one hand, there’s the sweet show of affection between the elderly woman and the little boy. On the other hand, it’s sad and strange and a sign of the times for friends and loved ones to be communicating through a window. Don’t miss these 21 moving photos of kindness in the time of coronavirus.

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Classrooms without children

Remember back in the day when it took extreme weather to make a school close, and even then it was only for a day or so? The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it an unprecedented (albeit, most likely temporary) change in the way children (and other students) receive their education. In an effort to keep teachers and students safe from the virus, schools around the world have closed their classrooms for the foreseeable future, shifting student learning to a home-based model involving video-conferencing platforms like Zoom. In this photograph, we see a Russian teacher wearing a face mask as she teaches remotely from a strangely desolate classroom.

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Air Force Academy cadets, spaced eight feet apart, listen to a commencement addressMichael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Graduation—or something like it

In this photo, cadets at the Air Force Academy, class of 2020, sit at a distance of eight feet apart as they listen to a commencement address from Vice President Mike Pence. Because of the constraints placed on in-person learning, the decision was made to graduate the cadets six weeks earlier than had long been scheduled. This marked the first time a military academy graduated a class early since World War II. This photo could very well become the iconic 2020 graduation photo since most other schools have been holding their graduations entirely remotely.

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Our new superheroes

Nurses have become the new superheroes of the coronavirus pandemic. “As a result of the pandemic, nurses, and all medical professionals, have become the mainstream icons for heroism, and this is the ultimate shout-out to those heroes,” Stewart notes. In this photo, taken in Germany in April, a boy gazes at the image of a nurse as Superwoman, as painted by street artist Kai “Uzey” Wohlgemuth. Nurses have also brought positivity to their communities and patients. You’ll love these 14 positive stories from nurses of behind-the-scenes COVID-19 moments.

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Clapping because we care

In this iconic image, we see a girl and her grandparents on their apartment balcony, applauding the health care workers who have been risking their lives to save everyone else’s. The “clap because we care” ritual began soon after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and has been adopted all over the globe. “Every night at 7 p.m., people are being asked to go outside or open up a window or door, and clap your hands and cheer for those who are required to work at places like hospitals, post offices, grocery stores, transportation centers, and police and fire departments,” KYW Newsradio explained in March, referring to what was happening in Philadelphia. Can you guess in which decade these iconic photos were taken?

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Protecting the vote

The sight of an election inspector running a polling location while wearing full hazmat gear is at once dystopian and heartwarming, but it is emblematic of what it takes to protect democracy these days, Stewart explains. In this photo, the Wisconsin presidential primary kicks off with in-person voting despite a statewide stay-at-home order. (Unfortunately, even hazmat gear didn’t do the trick for everyone; the in-person polling resulted in more than 50 new cases of COVID-19).

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Contactless everything

This photo has “iconic” written all over it because it speaks to so many of the pandemic’s themes. The first thing you’ll notice is two people giving each other an “elbow bump,” which, given the risk of viral transmission while shaking hands, may actually become the new normal, Stewart points out. The patient in the wheelchair also happens to be a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, Detective Michaell Chang, who had been hospitalized in critical condition as a result of contracting COVID-19. Police officers, as well as firefighters and EMS workers, face heightened risks with regard to the virus. Finally, this tableau speaks to a new custom that has evolved in hospitals during the pandemic: applauding the survivors as they make their exit from the hospital.

Aside from no longer shaking hands, here are more everyday habits that could (and should) change forever after coronavirus.

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Love still wins

Lots of things have been canceled or put on hold during the pandemic. That includes wedding receptions. But “COVID can’t kill love,” Stewart observes, and apparently, it also doesn’t dampen the desire of brides to wear frothy white when tying the knot. In this photo, taken while Germany battled the pandemic in early April, designer Friederike Jorzig works on a lace face mask meant to be worn with a matching wedding dress. “It’s fashion to reflect the times,” Stewart says. For a story with a happy ending, check out how one couple almost had their wedding canceled because of coronavirus until a Good Samaritan stepped in.

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A lone goodbye

COVID-19 is nothing if not cruel. While it’s killed more than a quarter of a million people around the world to date, it’s also made it impossible for us to mark the passing of our loved ones with the important rituals we’ve developed to comfort ourselves. That includes, of course, gathering together with family and friends to honor our dearly departed. In this photo of a pandemic-era funeral, a lone mourner stands in for all of the deceased’s family and friends. What was once shared by many is now taken on by one, Stewart points out. It’s a tragic but true sign of the times, and the image is indelible.

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Puppy love

When lockdowns began, there was a surge in pet adoptions, which is a wonderful thing for both humans and pets. For humans, taking care of a pet can be a welcome distraction from everything else going on in the world. For pets, well, isn’t it obvious? They need us, not just for food and love but because it’s their mission in life to bond with and love us. In return, we love and protect them as if they were members of our own family. Clearly, the woman in this photo, who has given her pup its own protective mask, sees it that way. “Even when our own lives are turned upside down,” Stewart notes, “our love for our animals prevails.” As the pandemic has demonstrated, it’s one of humanity’s greatest and most enduring traits.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.