The Divided States of Coronamerica: How Big is too Big?

For coronaphobics and lockdown believers, the United States serve as the poster child for how not to handle the pandemic. The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard (Fig. 1) shows cumulative “case” counts by US counties using proportional circles – a suitable cartographic choice, although the bright red colour on dark background is questionable, as discussed elsewhere. The ten-and-a-half million cumulative cases and nearly a quarter-million deaths as of November 10th, place the US at the top of the COVID-19 world rankings. But are these numbers actually big? And what can we gather from the spatial pattern of cases?

Figure 1: The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard zoomed to the United States. Source: screenshot from https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html.
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Some Doctors Are Giving John Snow a Bad Name

On 15 October 2020, a group of some 30 medical scientists and academics published a letter titled “Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: we need to act now” in The Lancet, see https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32153-X/. The authors reiterate details from the early, terrifying assessments of the public health threats from Sars-CoV-2. This includes the initial worry that the entire human population on earth might be susceptible to infection, owing to a lack of prior exposure; the infection-fatality rate of COVID-19 being “several-fold higher” than it is for the flu; and a claim that lockdowns were successful in slowing the spread of the virus.

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Respiratory Disease Surveillance, Seasonality, and Sars-CoV-2

When did the pandemic end in Canada and Germany?

Among German lockdown sceptics, official data from the infectious disease agency RKI made the rounds, which suggest that Sars-CoV-2 may have disappeared as early as mid-April 2020. We will take a look at the last weekly report of the RKI’s routine influenza surveillance workgroup for the 2019/20 season ending September 29th, available via https://influenza.rki.de/Wochenberichte.aspx. The surveillance program is conducted through five avenues: a voluntary population survey, an incidence index based on consultations for acute respiratory diseases at some 750 regional doctors’ practices, lab reports from a sentinel network of some 35 representative doctors, lab-confirmed flu cases reported in adherence to the infectious disease act, and data from 69 sentinel hospitals about patients with severe acute respiratory illness.

Figure 1a. Estimated weekly rate of acute respiratory illness in percent of population in Germany. The data are based on a voluntary survey for three previous seasons (blue and yellow curves) and summer 2020 (black curve). X axis is in calendar weeks, vertical line marks January 1st. Source: https://influenza.rki.de/Wochenberichte/2019_2020/2020-39.pdf
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How to Lie with COVID-19 Maps

… or tell some truths through refined cartography

In his seminal book “How to Lie with Maps”, Professor Mark Monmonier illustrates how map makers can intentionally or inadvertently convey falsehoods using misguided data selection and cartographic design options. In an era of widely accessible, easy-to-use online mapping tools, misleading maps are becoming ubiquitous. Maps of COVID-19 statistics, along with associated graphs and data tables, which have become a focus of public attention this year, are no exception. Therefore, I want to take another look at the pitfalls of the popular choropleth map.

Screenshot from https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/coronavirustracker/ with data updated as of 2 November 2020. Note this is an example of how NOT to map COVID-19, see text!
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Science is Dead – Long Live “The” Science?

This year, politicians, public health officials, journalists, and even our Facebook friends are urging us to listen to “the” data, trust “the” evidence, and follow “the” science with respect to COVID-19. Yet, each of these groups feel entitled to select which data, evidence, and science they elevate to the royal rank of “the” data, evidence, and science. A quick reflection or a look at an encyclopedia (online or otherwise!) will reveal that science is a never-ending process of asking questions, making observations, structuring ideas, hypothesizing explanations, conducting experiments, and drawing preliminary conclusions that inevitably raise more questions to be researched. In complex systems and processes such as infectious disease spread, the data and evidence resulting from the scientific method, and the underlying models and theories, may never be conclusive, and as such it is foolish and misleading to speak of “the” one science guiding us through the corona crisis.

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Faces and Facets of the German-Speaking Corona Opposition

An account of events from March to September 2020

Owing to a set of personal circumstances, I was able to closely follow the first half year of Sars-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in Canada in comparison with Europe. Over there, Germany, and to a lesser extent Austria and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, produced some of the earliest skeptical voices who put the virus’s threat into perspective. Germany also has perhaps the broadest spectrum of critics of the government response measures globally. In the interest of open discourse and exchange of ideas, I offer this subjective overview of key actors and aspects of the corona opposition in the German-speaking world. I am focusing specifically on the different areas of expertise represented among the dissenting views.

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Issues of Scale in the Corona Crisis

The granularity at which you look at COVID-19 may determine your attitude towards Sars-CoV-2

Scale is one of the most fundamental concepts in Geography. My PhD student just completed her dissertation on “The Consequence of Scale: Process and Policy Implications of Composite Index Modelling Using the Conceptual Framework of GIS-MCDA”, in which she compares biodiversity indices computed at different scales within a city, for example smaller census tracts vs larger social planning neighbourhoods. In Geographic Information Systems (GIS), we usually work with aggregated data, and the scale of aggregation can range from census blocks through postcode areas and neighbourhoods/wards to cities, counties, provinces, and countries. Results of data analytics are known to depend on several aspects of scale, including the observation/measurement scale, at which data are collected; modelling scale, at which data are analyzed; and operational/policy scale(s), at which decisions are made and implemented.

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The Saga of False-Positive COVID-19 Tests

[Skip to second paragraph if you are not interested in the German context of the false positives issue.]

On June 5, 2020, OVALMedia’s Robert Cibis interviewed the Austrian microbiologist and infectious disease specialist Dr. Martin Haditsch about laboratory tests and specifically the PCR test that is used globally to detect the Sars-CoV-2 virus in a person. The interview [in German] broached the issue of false-positive test results in the context of a low-prevalence disease and imperfect tests. Two Youtube copies of the one-hour interview have a total of over 100,000 views at the time of writing. The next day, Swiss entrepreneur and Youtuber Samuel Eckert presented a 20-minute summary and explanation of the false-positive issue using an interactive Excel spreadsheet. His video currently boasts over 225,000 views with 15,000 likes. Possibly in response, the German Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn, a banker by training, said in a brief interview contained in a tweet from public TV channel ARD on June 14 that if the COVID-19 prevalence continued to drop and testing was simultaneously expanded (as has been the case in many Western countries since mid-April) into the millions then you would eventually obtain more false-positive than correct-positive results.

Dr. Yaffe addressing the press, 30 July 2020, see full video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ed5cZFOrcZQ or view clip at http://gis.blog.ryerson.ca/files/2020/09/Ontario-announces-details_July-30_Trim2.mov
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Book Review: Corona False Alarm?

Karina Reiß, Sucharit Bhakdi: Corona Fehlalarm? Zahlen, Daten und Hintergründe [Corona False Alarm? Numbers, Data and Background]. Goldegg, Vienna Austria. Published 1 June 2020 (eBook, EAN 9783990601907) and 23 June 2020 (paperback, 160 pages, ISBN: 978-3-99060-191-4)

Published in the midst of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, „Corona Fehlalarm?“ (German for “Corona False Alarm?”) gives reason for deep reflection on where humanity stands with respect to rational decision-making, public health, and the social contract. In fact, the authors would argue that we are in a panic rather than a pandemic, and that we are not in the midst but at the end of the COVID-19 curve, though we may only be at the beginning of much worse collateral damage inflicted by the global overreaction to the appearance of the novel coronavirus in December 2019.

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Corona Crisis – Tunnel Vision vs Comprehensive Risk Assessment

Summary of a Leaked Report from the Crisis Management Unit KM4 of the German Ministry of the Interior (BMI)

Mainstream and alternative media in Germany are brewing with news of a leaked report assessing the German government’s crisis management with respect to COVID-19. The liberal-conservative magazine Tichys Einblick first published extracts of the report that was circulated by its author, a civil servant who has since been suspended. Another alternative media platform, Die Achse des Guten, documents that a draft of the “corona paper” had been presented internally as early as March 23 and the minister’s office was approached by the report’s author on April 25, but as the report continued to be shut down, the author decided to circulate it more widely and it was eventually leaked. The Ministry responded with an unusual Sunday press release dismissing the report as a personal opinion. Interestingly, nine eminent medical experts who were consulted in preparing the report issued a press release of their own on Monday, stating their surprise that the Ministry seems determined to continue ignoring expert analyses of the collateral damage of the COVID-19 response and fail to substantiate its claims that the protective measures taken were effective and are continuously being reassessed.

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