The John Hopkins Heat Map

One of the most striking images to occupy our screens in the last few months is this global heat map of the COVID-19 pandemic made by researchers at John Hopkins. A heat map, says Wikipedia, is “a data visualization technique that shows the magnitude of a phenomenon as color in two dimensions. The variation in color may be by hue or intensity, giving obvious visual cues to the reader about how the phenomenon is clustered or varies over space.” This heat map has become popular and widely shared as a representation of the spatial spread and concentration of the pandemic: red marks out hotspots and black marks those zones that have escaped the worst depredations of the virus. It underlines the pandemic as a truly global event. Beside the map, a host of panels and numbers – on death, recovery and total cases – intimate the intensity of the pandemic. In modern western thought, numbers carry the authority of objectivity; they lay direct claims to truth. What grabs our attention most is a panel which lists total cases by country (and then by states and counties), indicating the distribution concentration of the virus. Despite its global spread, the country and region wise break up reminds us of our national, local specificities – fuels our immediate perception of risk. Such images and panels despite help mobilize nationalist affect despite its global nature. Countries were quickest to impose nation-specific travel bans, often with explicit racial undertones (such as the US travel ban on China). They made crossing national borders an even more surveilled and stringent exercise instead of shoring up healthcare facilities. The John Hopkins map repeats this as epistemic violence: it glosses over how community transmission happens, how national care infrastructures are to be mapped out, and how risks are unevenly distributed even within a nation/region due to historical inequities.