Freelance Web-GIS developer. I write about GIS because I love it.
The Novel Corona Virus or the COVID-19 is wreaking havoc and it is not the first or last of such infectious diseases we have to face. In the recent past, we have also seen massive outbreaks of new infectious diseases like MERS, SARS, Zika Virus, Ebola Virus, H1N1 Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and many others. We currently also have different epidemics like Polio, Aids, Dengue, etc. in different parts of the world.
We believe that there are potentially more harmful diseases coming our way. We hope it doesn't happen but when we say this, we have four reasons:
Evolution of Superbugs
Now, let us explain them briefly.
With the invention of antibiotics, humans found the ultimate weapon to kill the harmful bacteria that used to kill millions before. But bacteria, like all living things, evolve. And they are now evolving into superbugs which are the same bacteria but resistant to antibiotics.
If you want to go into the details of superbugs, watch this 6-minute video. It explains the phenomenon really well:
Climate Change is also another very big threat faced by humanity. People think that it is only going to cause extreme weather events but unfortunately, that is not true. It is also going to bring lethal diseases.
Viruses can stay dormant for tens of thousands of years and come back to life when there are survivable conditions.
And there are a plethora of ancient viruses buried in the glaciers worldwide. For these ancient viruses, we do not have the medicines and vaccines and to make things worst, our immune systems haven’t evolved to fight them either.
One such instance was seen in the Russian Arctic when an ancient virus came back to life from the melting permafrost and killed thousands of reindeers and some humans. You can read more details about this incident in this story by BBC Earth.
And the issue is not just with the polar glaciers. The Tibetan mountain range, commonly known as the third pole of the world, also has gigantic glaciers that are melting and these glaciers also have a huge number of dormant ancient viruses.
Four of the mightiest rivers of the world i.e. Indus, Ganges, Yellow River, and Yangtze flow out of these Tibetan glaciers. Some relatively smaller rivers like Brahmaputra and Mekong also emerge from the same glaciers. These rivers flow into China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. These countries roughly have half of the Earth’s population. So any virus in these glaciers can very quickly infect the human population and/or also threaten our livestock.
With the human population at an all-time high and still on an upward trend, we need more resources and space. Due to this, our specie is encroaching deeper and deeper into wildlife habitats. Many of these animals live with viruses that can be potentially deadly for us humans but are harmless for them.
This video from 2015 warned about how humans shouldn’t bother wild bats. It tells how wild bats can have potentially deadly diseases for humans.
There is now a new, low cost, and very lethal weapon: Bioterrorism.
Viruses and Bacteria can now be synthesized in the lab by modifying genes and various other techniques. This is very lethal because it is an extremely low cost and effective. And also it is very difficult to trace the origin of the bacteria/virus so anyone can do it without fearing a strike back.
It can be used by militaries, rogue elements in the militaries and even terrorist groups. So in our opinion, this is a very big threat to humanity from humans.
How can geospatial data help?
So far, the picture looks very gloomy but that is not the case. Now let’s talk about the solutions. Here we have three cases where geospatial data can help.
Identifying Risk Areas
When it comes to infectious diseases like CoronaVirus, geospatial data can be really helpful as it helps in identifying patterns. We recently built a tool “The Corona Map” which shows historic and geospatial data about Corona Spread on country level.
This tool right now has country-level data. But this can be used to drill down to the smallest geographical boundaries like county or streets if the data is available. At this level, it becomes really powerful.
The authorities can see which are the hotspots and which areas are really hit, this sort of geospatial visualization provides decision support like which areas need to be locked down, where we need more testing centers and so on. This information enables authorities to nip the evil in the bud and contain any epidemic in its infancy.
A similar geospatial visualization can be created for the strain on assets like hospitals, makeshift hospitals, quarantine centers, etc. The strains could be unavailability of medical staff, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, and PPE, etc. This visualization can also help authorities in managing their resources effectively.
We have created a simple flowchart of how such a Spatial Decision Support System would work.
Such a system is not only useful for epidemics/pandemics but can also be similarly used to monitor other diseases and it would help find patterns and hotspots. For example, increased diarrhea cases in a county could mean a contaminated water supply line and so on.
Another very important requirement of this system is that its data has to be shared internationally. The countries need to share their data with each other in a framework developed by regional and /or international organizations like the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union, the SAARC, and United Nations.
Tracing and Tracking Patients
This method is already in use in some countries like Pakistan and South Korea. These countries are accessing location and movement history data of their citizens from the telecom service providers. Now when a patient tests positive for COVID-19, his travel history for the last 14 days is checked and those the person met during this time are alerted.
Here in this flowchart, I explain how such a system should work.
This same data is also being used to trace the trail of the virus and find more people at risk. This use of geospatial data is proving to be really helpful in these countries.
Another very important tool that is also being used in some places is online symptoms checker. This can also become more useful if location data is added to it. We have also created a symptom checker which you can also use to check your own symptoms here.
Once we have the information of symptoms, the patient's location and his likeliness of having Corona is plotted on a map. This map can really help authorities to see from where more cases are coming. You can view the symptoms from the above test here.
This information can also be used to filter severe cases and teams can be dispatched to collect testing samples from patients while they isolate themselves. This not only reduces the pressure on healthcare infrastructure but also removes the risk of further transmission of the virus during the commute of the patient.
In the following flowchart, we’ve explained this use-case to help you understand better.
This story has been co-authored with Dr. Jacques Kpodonu who is a Faculty Member at Harvard Medical School.
I am Ramiz Sami. I climb mountains, lift heavy weights and build WebGIS solutions. Feel free to get connected with me on Linkedin.