A harsh reminder to us about how we are all interconnected … through our thoughtlessness, greed … and geography. We see this through the many repercussions of the ongoing 2019 nCoV (coronavirus) saga. [with two updates at the end of this post: 12, 14 February 2020]

The pandemic has led to many consequences around the world.

As I write this on Monday 10 February 2020 in the morning, Deccan Herald (DH) reports that the number of reported coronavirus infections around the world is “just the tip of the iceberg”; meaning that there are many more cases we are likely to detect. While an international expert team flew to China “to help coordinate a response to the outbreak that has so far infected more than 40,000 people and killed 908 in the country.” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) tweeted, “There’ve been some concerning instances of onward #2019nCoV spread from people with no travel history to (China). The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; … we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.” While the virus’ spread outside China appeared to be slow, he warned it could speed up. (Source)

Geography and geographers help

Whenever there is an epidemic or pandemic, geographers are among the first jump in to help. This is vital because we cannot tackle the spread of the pathogen (disease-causing organism) without geographical knowledge of the disease: place matters! This has been the case since the famous case of the cholera outbreak in London in 1854 where geographic understanding played an important role in tackling the problem – here a doctor discovered how place matters in an epidemic.

Geographers have helped bring the PDK (Powerful Disciplinary Knowledge) of geography to help understand and address the geographies of many other diseases also such as AIDS, plague, Ebola, Zika, malaria, cancer, SARS, and others. A doctor even applied geography to treat my tummy troubles in 1990 and helped me avoid taking unnecessary medicines. I got well within three days!

The current pandemic of the coronavirus is no exception. Geographers are on it. Here is an interactive map that will help you track (see item #2 under Explore below) the latest situation of the pandemic world-wide. Developed by Dr Bo Zhao (geographer at the Humanistic GIS Laboratory at the Department of Geography, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA) and his team. “As scientists pin down the origin, governments enact prevention measures and labs look for a cure, news about the outbreak of the novel coronavirus often comes down to two questions: Where and how many people are infected? A new interactive map from University of Washington geographer Bo Zhao aims to answer those questions in real time.” [Emphasis added] (Be sure to follow the two links in this paragraph to see what he and his team have done and are doing … such work needs good geographers and you should explore these kinds of careers in geography!)

Screen grab from interactive 2019-nCoV infection map. Click on the image to open the interactive map in a new tab. It is best viewed on a large screen. [Source: https://is.gd/Alzi3N ]

Use the map to explore many geography concepts connected to the coronavirus story. For example:

  • Scale
  • Movement of people
  • Transportation
  • Population (especially population density)
  • Why and how place matters (see also the Part 1 and Part 2 of this series)
  • Geographical timeline
  • Patterns of spatial distribution (notice that some countries may not at all have any reported infections! Explore why this might be.)
  • Spatial interaction – explore
    • modes of travel
    • trade connections

Equally importantly, ask geography questions when you study the interactive map! Asking geography questions is very important to develop your skills as a geographer … or any career you may embark upon!

Share your responses, thoughts, and geography questions by emailing them to Dr Chandra Shekhar Balachandran at geo [at] tigs [dot] in (replace [at] with @ and [dot] with . and remove the blank spaces). 

Many consequences

Movement

India has revoked visas for all people from China to prevent them traveling to India. Kerala has declared cornavirus a ‘state calamity.’ One person who refused to go into quarantine has been arrested and forced into quarantine in the interest of public health.

Hong Kong, technically a part of China but with very strained recent relations with the mainland, has closed its borders to people traveling from the mainland.

Several countries including India have airlifted their citizens from Wuhan, Hubei which was the hub of the outbreak. The returning citizens have been quarantined and are under observation. Such evacuations are part of the duties of government towards its citizens who are outside the borders.

WHO chief Dr Ghebreyesus said that widespread travel bans and restrictions weren’t needed to stop the outbreak and could “have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.” (Source)

Stigma

In all epidemics and pandemics, stigma (the shame attached to a person) is a very important problem. Because of the deadliness of the coronavirus, people of Chinese origin are facing barriers to travel. People are being shunned (avoided) and excluded merely on the basis of them being from Wuhan specifically, or any of the cities under lockdown, or anywhere in China.

Racist attacks on people of Chinese descent have been occurring in several countries. It is enough if a person looks like they are Chinese – they are stigmatized.

In the USA, “This is a virus that happened to pop up in China. But the virus doesn’t discriminate between Asian versus non-Asian,” said Representative Ami Bera (Democrat – California), a former emergency room physician who will preside over Congress’ first hearing on the outbreak on Wednesday [5 February 2020]. “In our response we can’t create prejudices and harbor anxieties toward one population.” (Source)

Inside China

In China, the government controls all information. As with many other countries in the world currently, China has restricted freedom of expression. This has led to the initial response of the Chinese government to the outbreak: suppression of the news. Eight doctors who raised the alarm of an outbreak were arrested – for fear that news of an outbreak would stigmatize the country.

Eight doctors on WeChat, a popular social chat network in China, discussed several patients who “were experiencing severe, rapid breakdowns in their respiratory systems.” They shared a concern that a virus attack from some years ago, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was back.

For doing this, police arrested them and some medical technicians for spreading misinformation. The government denied that there was any problem. (Source)

Dr. Li Wenliang, the main person responsible for raising the alarm, was among those arrested. The police made him sign a statement that his warning was illegal behavior. Eventually, he announced his concerns in public “and gave interviews to help the public better understand the unfolding epidemic.” (Source)

He died of the infection on 7 February 2020.

His death caused an uproar in China, especially online. This is remarkable because of the restrictions on free expression in China.

A 3 February 2020 report says: “Communities in China hunt for travellers from Wuhan … Communities in China are offering cash rewards, knocking on doors and questioning people trying to enter their neighbourhoods … They are searching for anyone coming from Wuhan, the central city at the epicentre of a deadly coronavirus epidemic (Source)

Economics

From small restaurateurs running Chinese restaurants in several countries to major international companies, the coronavirus outbreak and spread have brought difficulties to a lot of people. For example:

Shopping centres in China and Hong Kong have seen a steep decline in customers since the outbreak. International aircraft company, Airbus, has closed its assembly factory in China. The Chinese stock market, and the international trade with China have been hit.

Misinformation

Social media, especially WhatsApp, are notorious for misinformation. I myself received forwarded messages that advocated untested ‘cures’ for coronavirus. Read about how misinformation is spreading here and here.

Screenshot of a WhatsApp message circulating, purporting to offer a cure for the 2019-nCoV (corona) virus. This one mixes religious views to a scientific problem in dangerous ways. Many such unsubstantiated claims are circulating on social media. We have to learn to question such claims and seek reliable information, based on scientific evidence. Click on the image to see a larger version.

 

Screenshot of a WhatsApp message circulating, purporting to offer a cure for the 2019-nCoV (corona) virus. Many such unsubstantiated claims are circulating on social media. We have to learn to question such claims and seek reliable information, based on scientific evidence. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Being better informed is a major component of staying safe and helping others!

Explore:

  1. Find scientifically valid information about how 2019-nCoV can be treated. How do you determine if something is scientifically valid?
  2. Track the progress of the virus, and the measures to tackle it, worldwide.
  3. Find out what you can do to help in the effort to tackle the virus’ spread. Connect the concept of scale in geography to this task.
  4. Explore how the word epicentre is used in the context of 2019-nCoV.

UPDATES:

12 FEBRUARY 2020

The provisional name for the coronavirus was 2019-nCoV. Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled it COVID-19 and the hashtag is #COVID19.

Twitter screenshot showing announcement of COVID-19 Click on the image to see a larger version.

14 FEBRUARY 2020

Due to the deadliness of the virus causing COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) has posted information about myths being circulated. Please be sure to read the page.

World Health Organization’s myth busters page with free downloadable posters. Click on the image to link to that page.

Chandra Shekhar Balachandran, TIGS


A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 12 February 2020

Featured image: Screen grab from interactive 2019-nCoV infection map. [Courtesy: University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA]

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