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Corona Diaries: The truth is one thing. Useful truth is quite another.

July 27, 2020

As a lay observer of the COVID pandemic, I can’t add anything to the science or the politics of the event, though I can shoot my mouth off like Donald Trump and any other ignorant blowhard.

But let me tell you what frustrates me about the way information is presented, both by governments and institutions involved in dealing with the crisis.

Since the outbreak began, we have been assailed by diagrams, such as the one above, showing the progress of the virus. Most of them are by country, and all of them are two-dimensional. Effectively, they’re league tables. Even when there are breakdowns of different regions or cities within countries, the same format is used. London’s doing OK, Leicester’s had an outbreak. New York is over its peak. Florida and Texas are in the middle of a second wave.

We all seem to be holding our breath in anticipation of a second wave this winter, with the added complication of the flu season. Based on what I can see, I’m not sure it will be as simple as that. What if there are second waves now? Will those affected have a third wave, or a fourth? And will they all happen at the same time?

Perhaps the picture we should be looking at will show us that because of the measures taken thus far, the idea of successive waves, as occurred in the 1918/9 flu pandemic, is both over-simplistic and reflects the fact that countermeasures at that time were not nearly as effective as those we have used against this pandemic.

What I would like to see is a form of presentation that shows the rise and fall of infections and deaths in a much more granular and dynamic way. One method would be a three-dimensional, animated terrain map that shows how infections ebb and flow, which allow you to zoom to a region and perhaps even a city to show what’s happening.

Perhaps each peak, that might look like a molehill, could have a different colour to show successive waves. For example, blue for the first, red for the second and purple for the third. To give you an idea of what I’m taking about, take a look at this animated global map showing earthquakes around the world since 2015. Imagine the map a hundred times slower, and you’ll see what I mean.

That way, you should be able to see not only the size of the infection – indicated by the size of the molehill – but where each region is in terms of the progression of the disease. If we see that Leeds, for example, has stayed flat after a first wave, does that suggest that it’s in for a second one soon? We should also be able to look at the intervals between successive waves and understand reasons why an area has been hit with three waves over six months, and another by only two.

It may be that some institutions and governments are using these techniques right now to forecast future molehills, or, if you prefer, spikes. If so, they clearly think that we’re too stupid to understand anything other than a flat diagram. Or perhaps they don’t have data sufficiently granular to be able to show infections on anything other than a broad regional basis.

It would be a bit stupid of any government to share with the public predictions that might either be too optimistic or too apocalyptic. But wouldn’t it enhance our understanding of what’s happened thus far if we were shown historical data in the format I’m suggesting?

Why is this relevant to us ignorant proles? Well, suppose you were looking to go on holiday in France or Italy. You want to look at the history of infections in the region you want to visit. Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to see a dynamic map showing what has happened in the past six months in that region? Far more useful and meaningful, surely than a simple chart showing lines rising and falling, and often at only a national level.

The current situation in the United States shows how unevenly the virus is spreading and being contained. New York has been flat for a while, whereas Texas is in the middle of an outbreak similar to that which hit New York in March and April. Playing whack-a-mole with each successive hotspot is likely to result less in a blanket second wave in the coming winter, but instead in regions at different stages of infection, which is where the US is now.

Given all the science that’s going into developing vaccines and testing drugs to treat the symptoms of COVID, it would be surprising if 3D geographic models didn’t exist.

Many of us have important decisions to make as we emerge from the social and economic wreckage. Surely we need as much information as we can get, so that we can come to our own conclusions about where we want to live in the future, where would be the safest places to go in holiday, and where we might want to work.

Similar models showing economic trends would also be useful. For example, it would be good to see trends in employment by region and city, not buried in some dense statistical report, but in easy-to-understand graphic form. The same goes for business failures, bailouts and reconstruction spend.

Such information, collected and updated in real time and presented without political bias or spin by organisations such as the UK’s Office of National Statistics, would go a long way towards counteracting the sense that our chains are being pulled by leaders who have varying agendas and are only too happy to pull the wool over our eyes.

The cost of recovering from the pandemic will ultimately be met by us, the taxpayers, not by the Bank of Never Never. So surely it’s time that we were treated as grown-ups, not gullible children.

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