Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

The virus seems not to be moving in the sort of expectations we bring to maps, for defining territory, jurisdictions, or containment policies, but leaves us without adequate categories and metrics before its global spread. We can map it globally, or look at the local ravages it brings to places from Wuhan to Lombardy to New York City, but the migration is global, and its existential meaning is less able to be placed in any one site, even if the notion of “epicenters” of outbreak provided a valuable distancing device for months, as the virus’ spread was tracked, in a manner that eerily paralyzed its observers as they were tracked on our screen maps or on a larger screen seemed to mute their audiences to their meaning–

–or overwhelm them with so much meaning we could not grasp any narrative about the deadly pathogen’s global spread–

–but also leading many to walk by the map, unable to process the meaning of infection on such a scale, or to drill into its data in any graspable way, trying to parse the disease that choropleths failed to communicate either its virulence or a clear relation to its spread. Can the distribution be explained, or can any legend exist to describe the rapid infection rates that seem to have been found?

While we spend more and more time before our screens, are screen maps able to do justice to the virus’s global spread, or are we without the tools to move between different scales of mapping needs to track a virus in any meaningful sense?

March 10, 2020: Passing Before Disease Map in Mexico City

All too often, we switch the registers of mapping, as if without knowing it, toggling between screens of narratives of radically different–but all too often unacknowledged–scope, that consider the pandemic’s infectious spread about the globe by reported cases of infection, illness, or mortality but that are all too often implicitly about governmentally, if they are actually about globalization, the virulence of species-jumping viruses, and the inability to figure out the trajectories of COVID-19’s spread. If the goal of mapping COVID-19 has been containment–as it remains, in an absolute sense and ideal world–the changing reality of the disease which demands vigilant health care provision and monitoring suggests that we need to accept it as part of our globalized world.

The cartographies of COVID-19 we increasingly read online are ostensibly about the possibility of containing the pandemic But our dependence on these maps to orient ourselves to what we can grasp of the disease both conceal their dependence on institutional practices of representing infection, data, and contagion that inform them–and that suggest the transparency of data about the disease, in ways that may conceal our inabilities to understand the relation between its local and global spread. Rooted as our mapping tools and techniques–including those that have proliferated online–in concepts of nation-states, spatial mapping, and administrative boundaries that the manifestation of the disease COVID-19 or the migration of the virus SARS-CoV-2 does not respect, we are confronting the disease outbreaks through maps, in many ways, that fail to examine the deep historical and institutional practices of organizing, mediating, and framing the disease.


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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