Map Monday: what maps can and could teach us about pandemics

We’ve looked at a lot of maps at this blog over the past several Mondays. We’ve seen some statistics that have surprised us, reassured us, upset us, and some which we were correct to question.

We’ve come to realize that when you look at data, whether it is shown in the form of maps, charts, graphs, or with the currently popular infographics, you have to be ready to ask questions. You have to learn to interpret what is being presented to you. I happen to really like maps, but as I’ve mentioned in previous Map Monday posts, the data is presented for each country as the country average, which may be very different if you were to map it by urban vs. rural, by gender, by socio-economic strata, by race, by religion, by political bent, or by geographic features. It’s a learning process, and a fascinating one – at least I think so.

I have spent a lot of time this week looking for maps that would help us understand the pandemic: its spread and reasons behind why it is spreading the way it is. Currently, all I can really find by way of maps are those that show the spread by number of cases and those that show the spread by number of deaths. And, as you know, since we are all living through this nightmare in progress, the maps I will include at the end of this post will change by the day, and not for the good for many people.

We’ve actually seen some maps in previous weeks that speak to why the virus spreads somewhat differently from country to country, and why there are more deaths as a percentage of the population in some countries than in others.

For example, we’ve seen maps that show which countries have universal healthcare systems, which ones have hybrid systems, and which ones do not have universal healthcare. Although some universal healthcare systems are undoubtedly better than others, and for sure some healthcare systems were better prepared to handle this health catastrophe, with universal healthcare people do not need to think twice about seeking care or testing. And people with universal healthcare should not expect to have a large subclass of citizens who have underlying health issues making them more vulnerable simply because they have never been able to afford to go to a doctor.

For example, we’ve seen maps that show the level of inequality in each country. This is another indicator of how well a country can respond to such a devastating global event, because less inequality speaks to the level of the social safety net in place for people, which is always critical for a healthy civil society, and particularly so when an entire global economy more or less comes to a standstill.

Poverty levels (wealth) is another indicator, similar to inequality levels but different. And, although this pandemic started in the so-called wealthy countries, because that is where the people who can afford to travel live, inadvertently bringing the new coronavirus back with them, this virus will spread everywhere, and the poor countries will be devastated.

But there are many indicators of success a country will have in dealing with a pandemic that I haven’t been able to find in maps, although I could find some in charts and graphs. I’ll just list a few:

    • Changes in global travel over time.  International travel has grown exponentially in the past 50 years. Exponentially. All that plane and cruise ship travel has been growing like gangbusters. When few people went anywhere, new outbreaks were more likely to stay in place and eventually die down.
    • Global warming and the spread of new bugs.  I’d love to see a map that illustrated the correlation between changes in our world due to climate change and the spread of disease. For example, as the northern hemisphere warms, Lyme disease is becoming more prevalent in further reaches as the ticks find blood sources further north, like on moose. As the Amazon rain forest is being “harvested”, mosquitos that have mostly kept their yellow fever in the Amazon basin have found new opportunities as far afield as Rio and beyond. As habitat for farming is lost due to drought or floods, poor people will gravitate even more to bush meat, which is where some of these new viruses come from. It would be extremely useful to see maps that help explain these phenomena.
    • Political leadership.  There are no maps that show what kind of leadership each country has in office as this pandemic hits. Sure, there may be maps that show what party or overall political philosophy is in office, but not what guides the decision makers. Clearly, this kind of unprecedented situation calls for leaders who are concerned about the safety of all their citizens above all else, who listen to the scientific experts, who take decisive action, and who lead with compassion and confidence. I’m sure it’s a fluke, but has anyone else noticed that the countries that are singled out for taking decisive action that has had the desired results (minimum of deaths, cooperating citizenry) are: New Zealand, Denmark, Taiwan, Norway, and Germany. Has anyone else noticed that every one of the leaders of those countries are women? Just sayin’! (Oh, yes, and South Korea, with a male prime minister.) And has anyone else noticed that almost all the national and provincial chief medical officers are women. Hmm.
    • Pandemic planning.  I could find no maps or even charts that showed which countries had a pandemic plan in place, or at least a plan that was out of date. I could find no maps or charts that indicated which countries have an active pandemic planning unit. I know that some do, including the African countries that have been dealing with Ebola.
    • Testing and containment.  I couldn’t find any maps that showed the testing strategy different countries have been using.  Testing early and testing widely clearly seems to be one of the most effective aids to controlling the spread of the disease. Nor could I find any maps or other diagrams that showed when different countries implemented their stay-at-home strategies, the other most effective aid in containing the spread of the disease.

One thing that we must hope all our leaders realize now, even if they might have thought otherwise as recently as 4 weeks ago, is that science is in charge. Sure, scientists may not get it 100% right all the time, but they are working from a far better perspective and knowledge base than those of us without the scientific/medical training. And it is the science – nature if that works better for you – that knows what’s happening. The scientists are the ones working to figure out this new mystery so they can help the rest of us make the best possible decisions. There is nothing more important.

And let’s hope that when this calamity is finally over, or at least calmed down, the same decision-makers remember these lessons about the critical importance of science experts and apply it to climate change. Climate change is science – nature, once again, if that works better for you – and our planet desperately needs the decision-makers to pay as much attention to the climate scientists as they need to be doing now to the public health specialists. Please!

And now, finally, a few maps. I have chosen maps of deaths/1 million people instead of maps of numbers of cases, because the number of cases is entirely dependent on the testing protocol in each country – or lack thereof. The death counts aren’t perfect (and we wish they were far lower), but they’re a more accurate indicator of what’s really happening in each country – today.

And, finally, a quick look at the pandemic in cases as opposed to deaths. You can find the changes in number of cases for every day at the interactive map at the NBC New York link.


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12 Responses to Map Monday: what maps can and could teach us about pandemics

  1. Hi Jane and thanks again for this; the maps that REALLY got me with those of the globe gradually getting redder and redder with more and more Covid 19. What a visual. China pales now by comparison. Although it’s appalling the infection rate in the states, I continue to be impressed by their low death rate. Is this cause the NY City Hospitals are doing such a great job?


  2. barryh says:

    Thanks again, Jane. Those deaths per million graphs and their progression are really interesting. Its evolution will sure tell a story. Although we have to be careful – the figures are only what has been reported!


    • Jane Fritz says:

      It’s evolution will tell a story, indeed. I just hope future leaders listen to the story and take lessons from it. You’re right about the death count not being accurate, and sadly it’s a question of how undercounted it is in each country. I used that because the cases numbers are far less reflective of the reality, given that many countries are only testing people who are both ill and in hospital, while others are testing widely. It seems to me that testing widely is the only way to allow our former lives to resume, so that those who are infected know to stay away.


  3. Your comments about taking science seriously makes me think about the critical need for hospitals, healthcare providers, and of course, governments, to really be better prepared for that not-so proverbial “next time.” That nearly everyone in the industrialized countries were caught with low stocks of PPE stocks (an abbreviation I never even knew before all of this). I really hope that hospitals will have triple and even quadruple the supplies they need going forward. Sorry, I think my comment is unrelated to your post here on maps! – Marty


    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Marty, not unrelated at all. In other words, the healthcare systems – and importantly their federal govts that should be ensuring their countries are prepared for emergencies like pandemics, hurricanes, etc – need to have plans in place in advance, which very much includes having PPE for all involved workers. What a tragedy. You don’t go into healthcare in ANY capacity expecting to be asked to put your life on the line every day.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    Yes that worldometer website is astounding, as indeed it was before this pandemic. Couple of points (map-unrelated) – certain jurisdictions had pandemic plans in place, warnings, scenarios etc. but these amounted to paper exercises that were left on the shelf and un-resourced. And in Ireland, where proposals to have a universal health system have been moving at a glacial pace for many years, they managed to bang it together in about 48 hours when it suddenly became necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Very interesting. Thanks, Roy. I had no idea that Ireland hadn’t had universal healthcare. Now that I look it up I see that it’s still a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with a 2-tier system and many people copaying even to go to the GP. Wow. Not like the US, but still. And, yes, many countries had non-updated plans, including Canada. But only the US I believe had actually closed down the Pandemic Planning Office of their National Security Council after 2016.


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