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COVID-19: Visualizing the impact of an invisible threat

Editors highlight images that brought life to articles on the coronavirus outbreak, just as the world was struggling to understand it and adjust to the next normal.

How do you depict a threat that’s invisible to the naked eye yet having devastating impact across the globe? Since early March, when COVID-19 began its global spread, McKinsey has published 350 articles, surveys, reports, and conversations on the impact of the pandemic, grouped under the themes of Resilience, Recovery, Return, Reimagination, and Reform.

Getting the ideas, the words, and the data right is difficult enough. Then there’s the challenge of visually engaging audiences—on this website, in an app, and across many email newsletters and on social media platforms—in ways that reflect the diversity of our topics while embodying larger themes.

And an additional complication: we typically don’t create our own visuals, although we carefully curate and adapt them to our own style and brand. Instead, we rely on outside image libraries. And much of what is in those libraries—often showing people interacting in office and outdoor settings—felt irrelevant to this new normal in which we all practice physical distancing.

Our editors highlight below some of our favorite images, and the choices behind those images, that brought to life our early articles on the continuing pandemic.


COVID-19: Investing in black lives and livelihoods
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COVID-19: Investing in Black lives and livelihoods

Viruses do not discriminate, but Black Americans are facing an outsize share of the pandemic’s disruption to social and economic systems. For this piece, it was critical to put a human face to the problem. These two women could be your neighbors, and we must see them and the community’s issues to make change; as we seek to emerge stronger from the crisis, we can use the moment to build more equitable systems.

Read “COVID-19: Investing in Black lives and livelihoods” for more insight


Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges
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Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges

Exploding ice may not immediately say “effective leadership.” But the drama of the current historical moment is that almost every aspect of our normal lives was suddenly disrupted. This image suggests urgency: leaders must act to control the outbreak, and they must act now.

Read “Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges” for more insight


Returning to resilience: The impact of COVID-19 on mental health and substance use
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Returning to resilience: The impact of COVID-19 on mental health and substance use

No less important than the physical impact of COVID-19 is the effect it has on our collective psyche. For us, the fissures of this shattering bust bring home behavioral-health effects of the pandemic and serve as a call to action to meet them head-on.

Read “Returning to resilience: The impact of COVID-19 on mental health and substance use” for more insight


School-system priorities in the age of coronavirus
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School-system priorities in the age of coronavirus

By mid-April, widespread school closures affected 1.6 billion children globally. This piece emphasized the importance of putting equity front and center in the remote-learning experience. We felt that this image, with its singular focus on a child learning remotely, was an appropriate nod to the crucial issue of access—to devices and internet connectivity–which is unbalanced even in affluent districts.

Read “School-system priorities in the age of coronavirus” for more insight


Addressing climate change in a post-pandemic world
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Addressing climate change in a post-pandemic world

As the virus spread, some questioned whether the world could address climate change and the pandemic at once. We cannot afford to do otherwise. For us, the singular leaf stood out as both unwavering and fragile, veins exposed, dew dripping.

Read “Addressing climate change in a post-pandemic world” for more insight


Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal
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Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal

Even in very dark times, light can often be found. We selected this hopeful image to suggest a brighter path forward, echoing the call to action across five stages outlined in the article: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagination, and Reform.

Read “Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal” for more insight


Finding Africa’s path: Shaping bold solutions to save lives and livelihoods in the COVID-19 crisis
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Finding Africa’s path: Shaping bold solutions to save lives and livelihoods in the COVID-19 crisis

It’s no small challenge for the 54 countries of Africa to develop their COVID-19 responses. We chose this poised pair to echo the idea that both lives and livelihoods must be addressed. It was also important to highlight empowered, strong Africans who can find modern, bold solutions, rather than resting on a clichéd visual of suffering.

Read “Finding Africa’s path: Shaping bold solutions to save lives and livelihoods in the COVID-19 crisis” for more insight


COVID-19 and jobs: Monitoring the US impact on people and places
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COVID-19 and jobs: Monitoring the US impact on people and places

In offices across the United States, the chairs of millions of employees are sitting empty amid mass furloughs and layoffs. We chose this vacant seat for the way it invites you to settle in and look closely at the magnitude of the losses—while contemplating the potential for seats again be filled.

Read “COVID-19 and jobs: Monitoring the US impact on people and places” for more insight


How to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis
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How to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis

In the face of extreme stress, we’re all prone to fight, flight, or freeze. But leaders can build “integrative awareness” to thrive. We liked how the feather on water provokes reflection (literal and figurative) and calls to mind the idea of freedom, lightness, and lift.

Read “How to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis” for more insight


COVID-19 in the United Kingdom: Assessing jobs at risk and the impact on people and places
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COVID-19 in the United Kingdom: Assessing jobs at risk and the impact on people and places

We selected this image for the atmospheric mood, which sets the emotional stakes here. At a time when we are necessarily keeping distance, this voyeuristic peek into lockdown life reminds us not to lose sight of the human toll.

Read “COVID-19 in the United Kingdom: Assessing jobs at risk and the impact on people and places” for more insight


From thinking about the next normal to making it work: What to stop, start, and accelerate
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From thinking about the next normal to making it work: What to stop, start, and accelerate

The path forward in navigating the coronavirus outbreak is not linear. We thought the careful hopping from stone to stone reflects the agility and intentionality needed as the world forges ahead.

Read “From thinking about the next normal to making it work: What to stop, start, and accelerate” for more insight


Stability in the storm: US banks in the pandemic and the next normal
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Stability in the storm: US banks in the pandemic and the next normal

There’s no arguing that banks will be tested amid COVID-19. This image packs a ton of visceral emotive impact into a simple and immediate read; especially now, the turbulence expressed feels empathetic and personal.

Read “Stability in the storm: US banks in the pandemic and the next normal” for more insight


To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces now
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To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces now

With organizations contemplating their return, we sought out an optimistic symbol of movement and progress. To us, this bird in flight suggests how organizations can soar if they adapt workers’ skills and nurture their resilience.

Read “To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should start reskilling their workforces now” for more insight


COVID-19's effect on minority-owned small businesses in the United States
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COVID-19’s effect on minority-owned small businesses in the United States

Of all vulnerable small businesses, minority-owned ones may be most at risk. We liked this image because it captures the tension that so many of us feel, juggling the demands of work and family—a balancing act that’s only compounded if you face additional barriers.

Read “COVID-19’s effect on minority-owned small businesses in the United States” for more insight


Getting ahead of coronavirus: Saving lives and livelihoods in India
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Getting ahead of coronavirus: Saving lives and livelihoods in India

Autorickshaws are omnipresent across India’s cities. This row of idled vehicles shows a society at a standstill, but also suggests a country poised for action—mirroring the varied measures that could help India emerge from lockdown and get moving in the new normal.

Read “Getting ahead of coronavirus: Saving lives and livelihoods in India” for more insight


COVID-19: Implications for business
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COVID-19: Implications for business

This is where our coronavirus coverage began. We first published it March 2, and have continued to update it as our understanding of the virus, its spread, and its effects on business and society evolved. Initially, we picked a literal scientific depiction of a coronavirus strain. This halved sphere that replaced it reveals additional elements that may not have been apparent at first glance.

Read “COVID-19: Implications for business” for more insight


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