The rates of hospitalization for COVID-19 seem to have peaked over the last weekend in the United States, as a peak in the mortality in the United States for the global pandemic seems on the horizon. Over the past weeks, we looked to a range of data visualizations to find answers about the proximity of the viral pathogen to ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighborhoods, in maps of confirmed cases of incidence that have grown across the nation, puzzling out the progress of the disease that has been for too long poorly understood at different scales. Unclear and perhaps unintentionally distorted national rates of infection were long only roughly known may have delayed preparation on a national level, but their misguided reading seems especially tragic and hard to ignore. All too often, if the discourse of the map was containment, the coronavirus seemed to spread far outside any horizon of containment; besieged by a range of successive visualizations of “latest” numbers of infection and the tallies of deaths, we have been hardly been to process over time, let alone place them in a recognizable narrative.
The very possibility of the outbreak of the virus beyond China seemed remote. Even as it extended to Iran and northern Italy, allowing us to imagine the exponential transmission of the disease on an adequate scale. The lack of any models to place a global pandemic’s spread is disturbing. Even after China openly raised a red flag about COVID-19’s rapid spread of infection at the end of February, infections rising to almost 80,000, and expanding, we mapped the virus as distant and imagined it as remote; if we understood the world was globally interconnected, we could not recognize the inapplicability of early models of viral transmission or infection to the exponential growth of SARS-CoV-2 or the disease COVID-19. To be sure, no comparable global narrative existed–we turned to apocalyptic narratives with ease, the growth of infections so unheard of in scale, continuity, or incidence. Even if the rates have infection rates slow, however unevenly, and we continue careful habits, the persistent presence of the virus is only beginning to be mapped to allow us to understand how its arrival across the nation in eight to ten weeks–even as the virus infected over 50,000 Chinese, even experts were in denial. If “everybody was in denial that this was coming–including the U.S.–and everybody got hit,” the director of a major infectious disease research center at Laval University observed ruefully with what can hardly be called the benefit of retrospect. Are we only coming to terms with how to read maps of what a pandemic–as it was declared by the World Health Organization in mid-March–looks like?
As we remain indoors, looking with regularity at data visualizations of the progression of infection, uncertain about actual data counts or numbers of infected. We look at screens, far more than people, between reaching for the telephone or our email, negotiating pieces as if isolated details about incubation periods, accounts of the loss of smell, or fearful transmission of droplets, we lack a clear scale to imagine the spread of COVID-19, but are compelled to regain some purchase on its spread for sanity. We turn to maps to gain some purchase on the outbreak, that leaves our most recent mid-April choropleths entirely stained pink–
In the Bay Area, where we are privileged to live close to outdoor spaces that are still open, if we maintain distance, we try to take walks in canyons, meadows, or open spaces, rediscovering some of the trails that we once walked on with a newfound appreciation, as exits that enabling our cloistering in often small homes, San Francisco Estuary Institute invited us to convert a collective mapping project of “hidden nature” in the city into an exercise of cartographic therapy, by mapping those sites we wish we could visit in San Francisco’s removed ecological past.
The notion of exploring buried ecological treasures in the city from hidden creeks to animal habitat seems a needed sort of therapy, as we try to navigate a new present, listening to our family members or children talk to friends to retain a sense of social contact, or enter into sometimes comforting, sometimes painful, teleconferencing where one painfully discovers one often has less to say than one expected, or perhaps hopes for much more than videoconferencing allows–or are refreshed just in looking into other peoples’ homes, rather than our own, and remembering how deprivation leads to an appreciation of the taken for granted technology, appreciating the hollow miracle of the ease of contact with those spatially removed, but savoring its taste for what it is. (Or looking out our windows with new eyes: low car traffic led one friend to spot a Road Runner outside his house, an oddity far greater than a turkey hen, as we look out our windows with new eyes.)
But the unknown extent of the virus’ travel and its regular mutation are also more evidence of globalization–and perhaps for that very reason so hard for Trump, FOX, or the right wing social media aggregators to process–than we have ever had. Globalization is not the ability to navigate the world; it is the sense that we have been displaced by things that travel across borders, globally, and along spatial frameworks which we might have fashioned, but which are not inhabited by us: we no longer travel around the world like internet cable, digital transactions, and financial wires, or with the amazing rapidity and mundane mutability of SARS-CoV-2: the virus is moving at a rate that challenges our mapping engines, displacing us from its advance, and offering no clear narrative by which it can be processed for some time, creating a web of an interlinked globe that is stretching far beyond the scope of our claims to governmentality, and that we demand multiple mapping resources to try to process, to chart the different strains of COVID-19 that have developed globally, their relations, intersections, and the possibilities that antivirals might be developed to contain their spread.
By late March, the eight major stains that NextStrain mapped as unfolding over space reminded us that the continued parsing of the virus by cases in different nations, and different health systems, was no longer adequate, as one was no longer looking at maintaining national lines of defense:
Do we need new narratives of globalization, and of global pandemics, to be able to map the spread of COVID19, and where can we find them? As we fall back on an apocalyptic narrative of the globe, the networks of transit are far more mundane–transit in human bodies, air ducts, internal cabin airplane atmospheres, transit corridors, conference rooms, dispersed droplets, and vaporization in what we must call heterotopia, far more than meat markets, in which the non-living virus globally.
At the same time, as testing prepares to ramp up with needed acceleration to slow the disease’s spread, we worry that more removed than ever from global news, of the increased vulnerability of those who are without shelter or defenses, from refugees housed in crowded conditions, to strongmen who take advantage of reduced oversight.
The potentially new pathways for mapping the dispersion of droplets in the atmospheres in the environment by airborne droplet dispersion in urban spaces suggest a new paradigm of tracing the virus’ spread. They might offer a basis for transforming our relation to the world, by attending better to the environments where particles of RNA are dispersed into immediate surroundings by infected bodies: if runners are not imagined to be especially infected or sensitive to the coronavirus, new ways of modeling atmospheric diffusion by exhalation suggests that the models employed for determining criteria of safe social distancing might be expanded. For although most studies of distancing rely on models of the atmospheric diffusion of droplets of immobile peoples, with quiet air turbulence, the diffusion in cities, buildings, and urban pathways may be profoundly different in ways that effect the epidemic:
The possible pathways of particulate diffusion suggest the frameworks to which we might better attend to understand the pathways by which the novel coronavirus has so widely spread globally, and allowing more to attend to it with greater care.
The danger of a remove from global currents is embodied in the ease with which Donald Trump’s government is removing the United States from its funding of the World Health Organization, removing the annual $400 million contribution at a time of need of increased testing as COVID-19 as confirmed cases crest above two million. India, without funds or ability to test all its 1.3 billion people, is increasing surveillance by sending thousands of public-health workers to villages and towns to trace, track, and quarantine any contact with infected people, to isolate those infected as South Korea did with more testing kits, creating containment zones and isolation units for all testing positive. There are huge attempts to institute a “lockdown” on over a hundred million people, as Indian authorities have imposed to check the virus’ spread stand to expand a surveillance state with minimal resource.
but the desperation of such lockdowns may only reveal how far apart many have come from the actuality of globalization and the reality of our interconnectedness. There was recently reported a stunningly clear sense the United States government indulged, in balancing alternate world systems views as late as January, as the virus spread globally but the few verified cases made it appear isolated in America in a few cases, even if its human-to-human transmission was confirmed. The attachment to place, in a weird way, trumped epidemiological reality; a stiff refusal of globalism obscured the pathways that the virus would take after the first man infected with COVID-19 returned to Washington from China, from Wuhan, on January 20, 2020, and another arrive in Orange County the next day, introducing SARS-CoV-2 to the United States.
Why were we worried?
1. The pandemic was mapped in China–exploiting the meaning of a pandemic as an infection’s spread in a country or a world, by arguing that it was delimited–if it of course was not. On January 30, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross affirmed energetically to the nation the infection afflicting up to 8,100 in China “will accelerate” jobs’ return to the US, predicting a “reshoring to the US. and some restoring to Mexico” that used the obsolete markers of shores as a unit of economic integrity that should have left us worried for its dissonance with an globalized world, as interruption of supply chains affected American industry based in Hubei, from processors to electronics: but as Apple hurriedly shifted jobs from computers and phones from China, Trump’s desire US companies relocate operations from China seemed more in sight as the coronavirus was interpreted as a bonanza.
A crisis in public health? President Trump’s own economic advisors looked at maps with little interpretive skill or outright duplicity, noting “We see no material impact on the economy,” leading Larry Kudlow to insist “the pandemic is, of course, in China, not the United States,” underlining “no material impact” on America’s vibrant economy. Was this a misunderstanding, distortion, or pathological? Was not any pandemic a global event? Americans would only rush to clarify the meaning of “pandemic” a week into March–even as some within the administration noted the absence of any protection for the novel coronavirus in terms of a cure or vaccine left the country vulnerable, as if it was failed to be included in the pandemic or could be localized. In early February, the government was assuring the nation that the United States has only had 13 confirmed cases of the virus, on Feb. 11, mismapping the virus to dissuade closer scrutiny of the pandemic’s scope–“pandemic” only really started trending on Google about March 9 in the United States.
The political appeal of such epidemiological recentering was rhetorically potent, if it was a massive mipmapping of attention in a time of emergency. The adoption of the talking points social media supplied through the that was born in the anesthetized cocoon of social media offered a meme more than a logic: the retweeting of the charge that linked China, the danger of the novel coronavirus, and the Border Wall conceit was born in the feed of a combative coordinator of right-wing student outreach, eager to map the danger Trump has promoted in the most combative way: the meme tying protection a “Border Wall” could offer against infection only amplified Trump’s earlier assertions it was the border wall that would prevent the entrance of the coronavirus COVID-19 on late February, in Charleston, S.C., turning attention to his signature piece of policy, so often described as “going up fast” and recasting it as a basis to stop the spread of coronavirus, which led Trump to retweet the specious speculation of a man who cut his teeth on Breitbart: “With China Virus spreading across the globe, the U.S. stands a chance if we can control our borders”–to his 77 million followers.