The Geography of COVID-19 (Part 3): Maps and Society

Maps have the capacity to tell powerful stories about people and places. When informed by human geography data – data about who lives where and characteristics about gender, ethnicity, age, employment, mortality, and education rate—they can provide insights into the social, economic, and political context of novel phenomena, including COVID-19. What has emerged about the pandemic is a complex story of uncertainty and vulnerability where the virus defies generalities, manifesting itself differently in different places. However, early data reveal the susceptibility to the virus of those who are older, poorer, and brown. These populations are exponentially more at-risk. In addition to revealing vulnerable populations, maps can also tell stories about depleted local economies, stressed supply chains, and the newly circumscribed parameters of movement (or lack thereof) in our everyday lives.

We examined several sites that demonstrate the coincidence of human geography data and the virus. These sites reveal the following: 1) the relationship of vulnerable people and the virus to inequitable outcomes; 2) the integration of economic data with geographic information to track the intersection of global companies and small businesses in moving essential items to market; and 3) the use of mobile technologies in managing our personal geographic space in everyday life in an increasingly politicized environment.

Identifying vulnerable populations

Several sites demonstrate the power of maps to tell the story of vulnerable populations. Spatially overlaying US census, other socio-economic information, and disease data reveals where demographic conditions affect the coronavirus spread and transmission. These data expose the linkages between racial disparities, underlying economic conditions, and poverty.  This crisis magnifies  fundamental inequities that require robust data to track the virus in at-risk populations as well as identify innovative solutions for both economic and community health.

  • The Johns Hopkins site, State COVID-19 Data by Race, identifies US states that have released COVID-19 data by race broken down by confirmed cases, deaths, and testing. The site highlights expert opinion on the importance of race/ethnicity data to influence the pandemic response. However, these data are not easy to find; the actual data of the cases, deaths and testing are located on each state’s public health agency website. Importantly, not all states report racial and ethnic data for cases and deaths – a critical gap in the data record.
  • Jovion’s Community Vulnerability Map is an interactive platform that displays the projected risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes by census block in the US overlaid with socio-economic and environmental factors (e.g., access to employment; transportation availability; exposure to air pollution). This map demonstrates the integration of US census data and the Center for Disease Control’s Social Vulnerability Index with COVID-19 case data to inform community response.
  • The Kaiser Family Foundation’s interactive map displays confirmed cases and deaths of COVID-19 by race and ethnicity. Using data collected from CDC COVID database and data from states, the site exposes cases/deaths by race/ethnicity. Early in the pandemic it was evident that the virus impacts people of color disproportionately. Understanding and identifying where these populations are located is essential for community planning, response, saving lives, and adaptation to a “post-virus” world.
  • The APM Research Lab conducted a study on COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity. Thirty-nine states, including the District of Columbia, report deaths by race and ethnicity.  Searching by state reveals where racial disproportionality in COVID-related mortality exists.

There are few maps that track vulnerable populations and COVID-19 in middle and low income countries around the world. Others track the virus spread through vulnerable populations, such as refugees, providing important baseline data about social conditions in countries around the world:

  • The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Coronavirus Response provides maps by country that describe efforts to provide medical supplies and equipment, mobilize doctors and nurses, and provide shelters.
  • Refugees International provides a comprehensive report on refugees and the humanitarian response needed for the COVID-19 outbreak. Unfortunately, there are no maps in this report.

These sites reveal the dearth of data, particularly at sub-country scales, that is essential for future planning. Fortunately, the pandemic has instigated global cooperation through multiple scientific studies looking into demographics, pre-existing conditions and genetics.

These studies demonstrate the integration of big data from multiple sources in a geospatial context to better understand the underlying characteristics of COVID-19’s transmission and spread.

Tracking economic conditions

Clearly, a devastating outcome of the pandemic has been its impact on the global economy. Economic indicators, a key component of human geography data, provide numeric interpretations of economic impacts and long term recovery trajectories. Coordinating data from the International Monetary Fund and global statistics on gross domestic product (GDP) provides models for forecasting economic recovery by country.

The integration of supply chain analysis with location-based signatures is the basis for new methods to track and model supply availability. Mapping essential supplies, such as food delivery and personal protective equipment, reveal the fragile connections between global and local supply chains. Sourcemap creates methods to visualize and track supply chains from raw material to product distribution. They provide an overview map on the impact of the virus on select supply chains.

Our everyday geography

To combat the long term impact of COVID-19, we will need to adapt to new practices for managing our personal space. “Flattening the curve” means that we need to understand disease transmission through social distancing and contact tracing. Critical to these efforts to control the virus is an awareness that we need to share data – where sharing personal data is caring for the benefit of society.

  • The Social Distancing scoreboard grades counties across the US on effectiveness of social distancing. The methodology includes three metrics (average mobility, non-essential visits, and human encounters) to calculate and assess the behavioral response before and during the COVID pandemic.
  • Used by public health experts, contact tracing is the process of identifying people who may have been in contact with infected individuals to manage and control further infections of the population. Safe Paths is a free, open source technology that enables users to track location data with infected patients to determine if their paths have crossed.
  • The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Fact Sheet provides an overview of mobile technologies to collect and share data to enhance contact tracing capacity. However, these technologies evoke concerns about individual privacy and who has access to these data.
  • Google and Apple have partnered to create privacy-preserving contact tracing specifications to ensure anonymity in efforts to contact trace.

Increasingly, personal choices about stay-at-home orders and wearing masks have sparked anti-lockdown protests, conflating these practices in the US with constitutional rights and governmental overreach. Spikes in virus cases in reopening economies are evident in many countries as reflected on multiple COVID-19 dashboards. Solutions to the pandemic reside with governments and their ability to mobilize and lead an effective response. Governmental policies from around the world provide guidelines on response, strategies for contract tracing, and economic reopening. Forbes identifies seven countries (Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan) with the best coronavirus responses. These responses include comprehensive contact tracing and testing, mandatory quarantine, lockdown rules, and bans on both international and domestic travel. And interestingly, all of these countries have women leaders. These stories reveal approaches to addressing the pandemic that are tailored to the situation in different places and are sensible, compassionate, and sustainable.

*The Geospatial Centroid Rapid Response Team is committed to:

  • Helping to identify and examine emergent issues
  • Illustrating the spatial nature of the most current challenges
  • Elevating spatial thinking in science-based decision making

Geospatial Centroid Staff: Melinda Laituri, Sophia Linn, Dan Carver

Geospatial Centroid Interns: Arian Brazenwood, Luke Chamberlain, Sam Gudmestad, Caroline Norris