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COVID – Where are the Geographers ?

I happened to be searching this blog for some material this morning and came across this partial post from 13 years ago Foot and Mouth a Geographical Problem. An outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) occurred in August 2007 on a farm near Normandy in Surrey and movement restrictions were implemented within a few days and kept in place for a month. Livestock movements were banned and a 3 km protection zone was put in place around the affected farm and a wider 10 km zone for cattle surveillance introduced. The action was swift and effective and based on the experience of the much worst 2001 outbreak and a fundamental understand that the transmission of the virus between livestock was a geographical problem.

Swift action by Defra, the government agency responsible for animal health and countryside matters, was an important aspect in reducing the impact of this outbreak and of course the contrast with the governments response to COVID-19 this August is interesting.

There was much greater understanding of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2007, unlike the novel COVID-19, the method by which the virus spread between livestock had been understood for more than 100 years, in particular the virus was spread by

  • Close animal-to-animal spread
  • Long-distance aerosol spread
  • Fomite or infected objects transmission such as fodder or motor vehicles

Sounds familiar?

Fundamentally all virus transmission follows the First Law of Geography, in that the risk of transmission is directly related to the proximity to the person, animal or object with an active viral load. As a result of past experience with FMD there is a complex Cattle Tracing System that monitors all livestock movements along with monitoring animal health both locally and at the UK borders.

Only recently does it appear that the UK Government is starting to look at the response to COVID as a local or neighbourhood issue as opposed to the previous monolithic national approach. Selective “lock-downs” which have occurred in some cities seem to have been effective, but are still working at too large a scale.

The government is currently reporting COVID-19 cases by Middle Layer Super Output Areas (MSOA) an ONS geospatial unit covering a population of around 7,000 people.

Cases by local area in England

This is of course a good starting point and might offer a better foundation for local lockdowns than the current city based approach, for example Bradford as I write this post is covered by a local restriction, but looking at the MSOA level data there is a clear spatial distribution of cases within the city.

Geospatial variability of COVID-19 cases in Bradford

We really need to be working on even more localised measures at a neighbourhood or specific location level and of course this is where the overlap with contact tracing occurs.

NHS Test and Trace App

In my opinion (humble really!!) too much focus has been placed on tracing individuals rather than locations or specific sites which is a more easily managed problem both from the data collection point of view and in terms of reacting to outbreaks.

Venue check-ins seem to be a throwback to the days of Neogeography and the mayors of foursquare, but they remain a very practical and appropriate way for people to register they presence at a location in time and space. I was very much heartened by the addition of a “venue check in” function in the prototype NHS test and Trace app which will use a location specific QR code for users to “check-in” to locations as they go about their lives.

Let’s hope at least this function is finally rolled out!

It’s a simple message to communicate… “that a virus carrier was at the Red Lion on Tuesday and as you checked into the pub around the same time, please get a test..”

Geography is fundamental to managing the COVID-19 outbreak, in this mornings London Times a report on the findings of a paper published in the British Medical Journal suggests that the current social distancing guidelines are outdated and too simplistic, read between the lines and Tobler’s maxim is there…

everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things

Tobler W., (1970) “A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region”Economic Geography, 46(Supplement): 234–240.

So where are the Geographers? amongst the Modellers, Epidemiologists, Public Health Officials and Politicians.. where is the Geographical thinking ?

Geospatial Commission this is your opportunity ?

7 replies on “COVID – Where are the Geographers ?”

When the lockdowns first started I raised the idea of cell based lockdowns to the covid task group I was working with, specificaly building custom cells/areas that have all the basic necessities eg supermarkets, chemists etc and that people should only be allowed to move within those defined areas. The more I thought about this, it does seem to have some merit, but some major impracticalities, such as monitoring and enforcing it). I think the some of the places that have done well have regions of smaller populations that are easily governed eg NZ.

In Australia we have the much maligned (in my opinion) Federal system that, whatever your feelings on the states, has allowed us to relatively successfully shutdown areas that people understand. Victoria is taking it close to yours and my sugestions of localised suburbs and limited movement areas (5kms). However, when the localised shutdowns were occuring the sheer amount of police enforcement required to make it work, made it impractical and eventually it became statewide which is easier to enforce as it is already recognised. In the UK it would be much more difficult as there is a much larger population without clear smaller governed areas that people would be able to easily stay within…other than Wales, Scotland and if the Cornish had their way 🙂 . SOAs…who knows what SOA they are in? or leaving…this is why unfortunately I cant break the shackles of making maps at the impossibly large Australian Postcodes for people. Nearly all venues here have the checkin facility and the track and trace is being done fairly well, but people will be people and the more of them there are, the more will break the rules. Small recognised governed areas does seem to work, in some cases anyhow….does that make me a Republican? oh god!

Small is beautiful Paul ! Thanks for commenting, you are of course right enforcing local restrictions is not an easy task, but at least at the moment most people seem to be more than willing to follow Government guidelines and may be more willing to do so if such measures are to do with their neighbourhoods. As a result of lockdowns we I think have a much stronger sense of place and greater emotional links to our local areas?

absolutely, I definitely felt more connected to local businesses and I hoped that it made people realise how inter dependant we all really are no matter what our job or position is (hopefully that puts me back on the other side of the floor)

Hi Ed, completely agree. We have seen here in Ireland that geographers have been heavily involved but we have struggled to overcome resistance measuring, publishing or enforcing at any large scale high resolution level. The primary resistance has come from statisticians, privacy and civil liberties factions. So our local lockdown strategy has been County based – which is a wholly inappropriate blunt instrument in my opinion. No one in government has had the presence of mind to trade off the concerns of using higher resolution boundaries with the economic benefits of locking down smaller more concise areas.

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