Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

24. Containment of the virus is not possible to achieve by quarantine and isolation between national borders. But they echoed hopes to create barriers that might prevent the cross-country migration and infection. And their failure poses clear questions: are the pathways of global transit the very Petri dishes in which the pathogen was nourished, in suspended droplets in airplanes, hospital waiting rooms, and hotels, or is increased sensitivity to the perils of pathogen in aged coteries creating comorbidity questions for those of compromised cardiopulmonary conditions?

If the increase of novel pathogens and respiratory syndromes that have jumped between species are tied to expanding urbanization and geographic mobility, and deforestation, effectively bringing humans closer to disease, are the very pathways of globalization now incubators for routes of the pathogen’s progression in space?

We struggle before these maps with the difficulty to predict future human behavior, and the effectiveness of the current pause of globalization, in slowing the spread of COVID-19. For the lack of stability with which we view the maps that change each day, over weeks and months, both tend to de-empower ourselves as viewers, and to conceal the stubborn fact that we don’t know how many folks are infected, even months after the first fifteen arrived in the United States, more painfully aware of the partial nature of the picture of the arrival of the novel coronavirus in human hosts. The cases of infection, limited as they are, crowd out all other news from much of the world, as they spread across the map, leaving all viewers in a suspended state of watching their advance with little sense of what we can map except the mis-steps due to poor or incomplete understandings of the disease. The maps don’t reveal lost opportunities, but only the hubris of having hoped to contain infections’ spread.

But increasingly, while we usually see morbidity in terms of individual medical conditions, we are also turning to other maps of environmental correlations for the spread of illness, to consider the ambient in which COVID-19 spreads and becomes most virulent, and seems to be contained. In particular, it seems, we must consider questions of air quality, both in areas from northern Italy, where COVID-19 arrived with virulence, China, and New York City; the strikingly different peaks of infections and mortality across the United States and globe may suggest poor air quality. We are at least reminded of the degree to which continued exposure to particulate matter may compromise respiratory systems across ages, over time, a pronounced compromising of the lungs where COVID-19 settles and which it ravages.

25. We only saw the reverse of containment was what in the maps of infection and indeed mortality that appeared with an increased use of printers red unexpected in an age when journalism is consumed online.

Indeed, the piercing graphic registering the mortality rates witnessed by early April seemed a bit of a clarion call, puncturing the rhetoric of life ever returning to normal, as the image recalling the Pietà, and asking to pause the continued coverage of the growth of rates of infection in data maps that claimed any objectivity, as if this were lay in the range of acceptable outcomes or actualities. The approach of almost 5,000 deaths over less than five days was a turning point. The newspaper’s recourse to an arresting printers red in this elegant static map, extending above the print header, arrests the reader, as if in a dialogue with the dominance of seductively animated webmaps. It reveals alarm at escalating cumulative mortality rates across our nation. The print map grabs our attention, often assuaged by Presidential prevarications, and in its steep columns calls needed attention to feared possibilities of such a correlation have led to preparation of a potential influx of severe cases requiring ventilators in much of the east coast, midwest, and Southern California that have recently received surprising spikes of infection–the image seemed a question of the ability to hold together a coherent image of the nation, besieged as it was by COVID-19 at its major cities and with growing molehills of dead or dying across much of its heartland, as well. This, too, was an image of an intensification of national unity in the face of disease, and a hope that the stress-test for the nation can allow the nation to survive–and not fracture the chorus or community in the face of death.

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We might well understand such maps not only in terms of the different media of print and web, but the role of the print information source as a rudder navigating a stable course of assessment and judgement responding to tragic absence of direction or rational assessment from the President, either in terms of the communication of the danger of the contagion to the population and needs of massive health care response.

The concentration of air pollutants is not a necessarily primary in interpreting the brunt fact of these cumulative data. However, the observation of high particulate matter in several regions provides a needed sort of stability to read the overpowering gravity of these spikes of mortality, on which it is hard to miantain any bearing, in the midst of an increased stress at the witnessing of the rapidity of COVID-19’s spread. Might it make sense to read the map against higher concentration of particulate matter in the atmosphere–suggested in research that linked increased COVID-19 morbidity to increased particulate matter in the air to significantly greater mortality rates: the study released from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicate sustained exposure to air polluted by particulate matter levels greater than 13 micrograms/cm maps onto increased chances of mortality? The theory may well be reflected in the increased counts of county-level infections since–and would affirm, in truly terrifying ways, the role of anthropogenic chance of the environment on increased chances of contracting the disease in a region that is the rising site of its contraction.

Lead author Francesca Dominici, co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative, found links between “only 1 gram per cubic meter in fine particulate matter in the air associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate,” we find increased incidence of infections in polluted Southern California counties, as well as the rise of cases of infection, presumably from a lesser load, as confirmed cases grow by over 2,000 daily and collective deaths have passed 55,000–drenching the continent in printers red, as cases of infection bleed into the land.

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April 13, 2020/Johns Hopkins CSSE

26. We have puzzled over how to explain the variations in massive mortality across the nation–if they lie at the port cities of the nation, the most congested and the lowest lying the explanations of Farr or Seaman cannot hold, but we have few other areas to describe the outbreak of disease, save increased population density and crowding that intensifies the rapidity of communication, but not the virulence of the pathogen or outbreak. Can we try to map these divides across the nation not only by the arrival of different strains of pathogens, or a change in weather, but by different relations to place, and by being to use place to map how the pathogen travels in our bodies?

Can we map such exposure by airborne pollutants that compromise breathing, from increasing asthma to cardiopulmonary problems, that would create a different relation of the virus to its host? The distribution of air pollution across the lower forty-eight suggests a start, and has begun to be examined by some medical researchers.

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Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States. Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery, Benjamin M. Sabath, Danielle Braun, Francesca Dominici. medRxiv April 5, 2020
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California Dept. of Public Health, COVID-19 By the numbers, April 12 2020

The grim picture form the first death in California from COVID-19 on March 16 and first case of infection on January 21 in Orange County suggested a strikingly pronounced elevation of mortality in the southlands.

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 Open Street Map data/NATHANIEL LEVINE

This mirrors correlation to atmospheric particulate matter may parallel the tragic specificity of the spread of infection in northern Italy, sending fear across the peninsula, anbd mirrors the correlation between leukemia and high particulate matter concentrations in the peninsula’s north near Milan–

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Air Pollution and Leukemia: a Nationwide Case-Control: Occupational and Environmental Medicine 70: 12
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Such a density of pollutants correlates to a density of population across the peninsula, and an increase in the ease of communicability in crowded settings.

Human Terrain Population Map/Matt Daniels/Global Human Settlement Layer, Northern Italy

The relatively sudden growth of Wuhan, situated in relation to red spikes of falling populations in surrounding regions, suggest the acceleration of population density over five years, expanding to a poor rural outlying areas, or a massive immigration that set the stage for the contraction, and the massive rise of population centers of incredible density where the virus spread.

The relation between the ease of contraction and crowded conditions of contact suggests a dangerous tie between the crowded conditions of work and imprisonment, here taken in the crowded meat plants and correctional facilities that seem sites of the highest proportional strike of the virus per 10,000 residents, were the zoonotic virus seems to flourish in the ease of communicability: it suggests another possible and scarcely hidden link the globalization of the novel coronavirus, beyond levels of particulate matter levels in the atmosphere across the globe, but closely tied to the lived environment in which the virus clearly flourishes.

Washington Post

The question of how the environment and senescence both render lungs, as well as populations, more susceptible and vulnerable to the pathogen should be on the front burner of cartographies of COVID-19. If we expand transmission from human-to-human contact, in other words, could we create a more valuable cartography of the virus’ transmission?


Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics

2 responses to “Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

  1. Rachel brownstein

    It is amazing that his response is to close the borders. Has to be something weirder than denial, as you suggest. Border closing as both cause and “cure”.

    • The denial seems cognitive, but inability to acknowledge the responsibility of governments suggests a stunning lack of prioritizing public health safety. The script of demonizing foreign countries was on auto loop, and the world will suffer!

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