Understanding the spatialities of COVID-19

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

Kamalini Ramdas and David Taylor of the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore argue that pandemic response should include haptic as well as optic approaches to space—paying attention to how humans experience space, rather than taking only a ‘bird’s-eye’ view.

Geographers have long been interested in how viruses and diseases travel, and the interactions between humans and the environmental conditions that enable them to thrive.  Epidemiology—a branch of medicine interested in the determinants and spread of disease—is basically the geographical study of health. Perhaps the most famous early example is John Snow’s work on cholera in Soho, London, in the mid-19th century. In identifying the source of the outbreak and its means of transmission, Snow’s work helped overturn conventional wisdom at the time, which held that “bad air” (miasma) from rotting sewerage and other forms of organic waste caused infectious diseases and their spread. His insights have been widely deployed over the last 100-150 years in mitigating the devastating effects of infectious disease.

The Italian scientist Filippo Pacinia first discovered the organism (bacillus) that causes cholera in Florence, Italy, in 1854, just as John Snow was mapping its spread in London, and more than 2,000 years after it first emerged in Asia. Unlike cholera, COVID-19 is a viral disease, and only a couple of months passed between its recognition as a disease and humans establishing its cause: a coronavirus that jumped from its original host species (most likely a bat) into humans, possibly via a second or intermediate host. Diseases able to hop from one animal species to another, known as zoonoses, appear to be on the rise in humans. This is in part a result of activities such as deforestation and the trade in wild animals and their products, which increase the chances of our contact with wildlife,  and thus with the non-human animal reservoirs of potentially harmful pathogens.

A map made by John Snow of deaths due to cholera in part of London in 1854. (Photo: Wikimedia)

While we know a lot about other coronavirus-caused diseases (e.g. SARS-COV, MERS-COV) and other viral zoonotic diseases (e.g. HIV-AIDS), we know less about COVID-19 because its emergence in humans is so very recent. This has hampered our efforts to control its spread, which has been facilitated by globalisation and air travel. Research has focused on the virus and its effects on humans, but there is another side to the pandemic: how people become infected and infections spread. Are some cohorts of people, some places and some activities more likely to be involved than others? That detail, or granularity, is not captured in conventionally-produced maps showing the inter-continental spread of the disease and highlighting hotspots—countries and parts of countries where total reported cases are particularly high. A lack of granularity hampers our efforts to curb advance of the disease, can add to fear and panic, and promotes opportunities for the circulation of harmful misinformation.

As geographers, we argue that all maps are the product of transduction—the conversion of one form of information into another—and are therefore unlikely to be free from bias. As a corollary, we argue that a more holistic understanding of space is needed. Helped by modern technologies and in particular digital spatial data, this would also include haptic information, or information on how space is actually lived and experienced by people.

Optic and haptic: bringing science and the social into conversation

In responding to COVID-19, planners and policy-makers have largely adopted a ‘bird’s eye view’ of space, treating it as something immutable, capable of being mapped without bias (truthfully and objectively, in other words). For example, it is assumed that there needs to be better control of space by erecting barriers between bodies (masks and gloves) and by limiting the circulation of bodies (e.g. limiting travel between and within countries). These strategies sound logical and rational, and one could almost see the map emerging of clusters of people kept apart from each other as a way to contain the spread of the virus. But this takes no account of the interactions between people and their environment.

Such a bird’s-eye, or occularcentric, view treats space as Cartesian (named after the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher René Descartes): existing on a two-dimensional plane, and ‘outside of us’. This means that space can be partitioned and sectioned off (e.g. the setting up of neighbourhoods) and controlled (e.g. the erection of gantries or barriers to limit movement). Space is a material ‘thing’ that is hence a ‘stage’ or ‘plane’ upon which the spread of a disease can be anticipated, tracked and eventually contained, effectively and efficiently. An optic approach overestimates the difference that policymakers can make through macro-level interventions such as, for example, implementing work from home (WFH) and Stay Home Notices (SHNs), or mandating the use of masks and physical-distancing measures in public.

The bird’s-eye view has been adopted by many policy-makers, but the authors contend it needs to be supplemented by perspectives of bodies “on the ground”. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Geographers recognise the need for a haptic approach to space. Space is not just something ‘out there’ but something we are a part of. The focus is on a thinking and feeling body that lives in and encounters space. The decisions that people make in space are often immediate and visceral, rather than premeditated and rational, and rarely if ever arrived at in isolation. Topology, a conceptualisation of space that incorporates both optic and haptic views, has allowed for productive conversations between the two branches of physical and human geography, and will be crucial in formulating policies that are relevant to a real world characterised by mobility, interconnections and change.

For example, research on viral diseases needs to focus not only on the viral pathogen and its effects on health, but must also be informed by the factors and decisions that humans make in space. These are ultimately responsible for enabling the virus to spread within and between communities. For this reason, we argue that greater attention must be given to haptic approaches in our strategies against COVID-19.

Haptic spacing: living and working together in space

A haptic approach draws our attention to the scale of the body. These bodies produce space from the ‘inside’. Maps that show disease hotspots do not necessarily give us an idea of what these spaces are actually like ‘on the ground’. For example, while the frequent sanitising of our hands has become common practice, on a day-to-day basis we also interact physically with all manner of shared objects and infrastructure—such as touch screens soliciting feedback on public toilets, the handles of supermarket trolleys, and cash—with little idea of just how clean their surfaces are.

How clean is this screen, exactly? (Photo: Kristina DC Hoeppner)

Data about the actual lives of people on the ground, their social interactions and affective needs can go a long way to more context-specific strategies. For example, WFH and SHNs can mean that individuals who live in crowded and less hygienic conditions may be at greater risk of becoming infected (e.g. foreign worker dormitories, where undetected infectious workers live in very close proximity to uninfected workers). Data on the living conditions of migrant workers (i.e. what their lives are actually like, how close they live together, the social networks and movements within the dormitory complex) could have informed a more grounded approach to policy-making. Reducing the number of beds in each room, and the number of individuals using shared facilities like toilets, kitchens and common rooms will help to reduce the incidence of contact between large groups of people. Much of this information might already be available in earlier ethnographic research by academics or NGOs.

Moving through spaces with higher density traffic (e.g. pavements, supermarket aisles) has also become more challenging, particularly as some of our responses to the pandemic affect how we perceive and navigate the world around us. We may be willing to engage in riskier behaviour such as manoeuvring through a sea of bodies to exit a situation that we perceive to be dangerous to our health, or even willing to risk not wearing a mask when we are out in public, because we find that it is too hot and suffocating. Mobility apps, such as TraceTogether, help authorities to track where people are, and these are certainly useful for contact tracing, but they do not provide the public with real-time information about how crowded a place may be, or provide an explanation as to why people might be engaging in risky behaviour, such as grouping close together.

Current haptic approaches to mapping: where do we go from here?

Two examples of haptic approaches in mapping include research using qualitative geographic information systems (Qualitative GIS) and interactive maps. Traditionally, GIS has made use of quantitative locational and associated attribute data, to draw maps and visualise statistical and locational data in diagrammatic form. With Qualitative GIS, it is possible to create maps using qualitative data (i.e. textual material). While such maps suffer from biases, they are at least likely to provide a more complete depiction of people’s actual experiences in space.

Using Qualitative GIS software, qualitative data can be visually represented, adding depth to two-dimensional Cartesian mapping (e.g. using words to create maps—more complex versions of word clouds) and finding new ways to draw maps that do not only make use of locational attributes (i.e. longtitude/latititude, GPS coordinates) but also more experiential descriptors, providing information about what places are actually like. This qualitative data can be coded to provide another layer of more contextualised information.  For example, Qualitative GIS has been used to provide more contextualised mapping on health-related topics such as asthma and adolescent substance abuse. It has also been used to map women’s experiences of violence in public spaces.

The Healthy Futures Atlas presents both quantitative and qualitative data about climate change impact on the distribution of three infectious diseases in eastern Africa, taking into account the vulnerability of different people based on factors like age, access to health, level of education and gender. (Screenshot taken on 12 May 2020)

Interactive maps, capitalising on improvements in web-based software, have also been crucial to how we map both quantitative and qualitative ‘real-time’ data. These use data that are crowd-sourced and ‘live’, while also allowing for the tagging of people and places, and the upload of photographs and additional text. However, as with most crowd-sourced data, there are concerns about reliability, privacy and data protection.

It is important to adopt an interdisciplinary approach involving geographers, sociologists, social workers and public health specialists, many of whom already produce data through ‘on the ground’ research. These can be used to verify and extrapolate more information from crowd-sourced (volunteered) information. It is also perhaps useful to crowd-source from more reliable data points, such as non-governmental and volunteer or welfare groups in direct contact with vulnerable groups. Some volunteered data might be anecdotal and their sample size may not be representative. However, when a quick response is necessary, any existing information about how people actually live and interact in space is likely beneficial to emergency planners and responders.

Optic and haptic approaches: the way forward

By adopting both optic and haptic approaches to spatial thinking we can better respond to crisis situations like the pandemic. Many current strategies rely largely on an optic approach—space is regarded as static and objective. By also being attentive to the haptic and the rapidly changing nature of space, we are likely to be better equipped to respond to the seemingly irrational and risky behaviour of individuals. A haptic approach ensures that we pay attention to the social and environmental conditions that people live in, and how to better contextualise and implement our mitigation strategies.

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