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Volume 33, Issue 4, 2020


Volume 33, Issue 4, 2020


Anne Holland, Editor, Geodate

“More than ever before, the concepts of geography have shaped our understanding of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has redefined our relationships with space and place. It has shown us that at every spatial level, we are all interconnected in some way, shape, or form, and that our actions can have a ripple effect on society.” (Li, 2020)


Coronavirus (Covid-19), an infectious zoonotic disease that affects the human respiratory system, was first reported in China in late 2019 and then spread rapidly across the globe. On the 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the virus to be a global pandemic. By the 19 August 2020, almost 22 million cases had been confirmed across the globe with over 775,000 deaths reported as arising from the virus.

It has been argued that the global disruption of the environment by humans is a cause of the increase in zoonotic disease, including Covid-19. In particular, as forest habitats are cleared and wild animals are hunted for bush-meat, there is increased likelihood of zoonosis as contacts between wild animals and humans occur more frequently. With climate change, causing increased floods and droughts, food insecurity may rise and people may be pushed to encroach further on natural environments for food.

As droplets in the air from infected people coughing or sneezing is the primary cause of Covid-19 transmission, many authorities have adopted social isolation and social distancing as measures to halt the spread of the disease (Figure 1). By July 2020, over 100 countries had gone into lockdown. Although these measures have been effective in reducing community transmission of the disease and the impacts on human health, such measures have had wide-ranging socio-economic impacts on society on a local, national, regional and global scale.

As globalisation has played a key role in the spread of the disease, it has also meant socio-economic impacts have been global in scale. Understanding the geographical factors that may influence the spread of Covid-19 virus, as well as the subsequent socio-economic impacts, may inform us as to how society can reduce the risk from future pandemics.

Figure 1: Transmission and prevention of Covid-19

How has geography influenced the spread of Covid-19?

Geography can play an important role in helping us to identify and understand the distribution of a disease and the factors affecting its spread. A major geographical factor in the unprecedented rapid global spread of Covid-19 was increased global connectivity brought about by technological advancements in communications. These advances have brought about space-time compression, facilitating large-scale international travel and globalisation on a scale not seen before. As a result, large cities, that form transport nodes for international and national transport networks, have become coronavirus hotspots from which the virus can then spread to other cities and rural areas.In March 2020, the highest death rates from Covid-19 in England and Wales were in the largest urban areas; however, by May of that year, death rates in smaller cities were higher than the large cities and were rising in rural areas.

Other geographical factors that contribute to large cities being hotspots for Covid-19 include their high population density, greater use of public transport, and the predominance of tertiary economic activity providing increased opportunities for face-to-face interactions through business and entertainment. A high population density assists community transmission of the virus particularly in areas of greater deprivation and socio-economic disadvantage where the more crowded living conditions make social distancing very difficult to achieve.

Climate change, although not being advocated as a cause of Covid-19, may well affect the transmission and distribution of infectious diseases such as Covid-19. Cooler, drier climates are more favourable to the existence of respiratory viruses whilst rapid fluctuations in temperature can make it difficult for humans to fight such diseases.

By understanding the geographical factors that have influenced the spread of Covid-19, geography can help us to identify future Covid-19 hotspots and patterns of transmission.

Changing geography in unprecedented times

Social and economic impacts

International tourism has been severely reduced as many countries have, as measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19, imposed international travel bans, quotas and enforced quarantine periods for travellers returning home. By late March 2020, it was estimated that over 90% of the world’s population had some restriction on travel internationally and in May 2020 the UNWTO estimated a decline of 58% to 78% in international tourist arrivals for the year. These measures have had major wide-ranging economic impacts particularly on locations where tourism is a significant contributor to the economy, or where major global events were due to occur such as the summer Olympics in Japan.

On a global scale, the decrease in tourism is forecast to have a significant impact on revenue and employment. In May 2020, the UNWTO forecast that during 2020 the global loss in export revenues from tourism would be between USD 910 billion to USD 1.2 trillion, whilst the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimated that 100.8 million jobs were at risk as this labour-intensive industry declined. As many businesses are struggling to remain financially viable, this will also impact the future of this service sector.

Lockdown, social distancing, bans on gatherings of people over certain numbers and bans on national or interstate travel also reduced domestic tourism, but as national lockdown restrictions eased there has been an increase in domestic tourism. As a result those destinations popular with domestic tourists, and where attractions are safe to enjoy within social distancing restrictions, have seen some benefit to their local economies as a result of restrictions on international travel.

Restrictions on movement have also reduced economic activity and trade within and between countries. Global supply chains that are key to the globalisation of trade have been severely disrupted with manufacturers who rely on parts arriving from overseas ‘just in time’ being particularly badly affected. As businesses have reduced output or faced forced closure due to lockdowns, there has been rising unemployment, particularly amongst semi-skilled and informal workers who may not have an option to work from home. In India, where informal jobs employ 90% of the population, 122 million became unemployed during April 2020 causing unemployment to reach 27.1% by May. The rise in unemployment and loss of income for many low-income workers has resulted in a fall in their living standards and reduced their ability to provide for basic needs; in particular, low-income workers dependent on an unreliable low daily-wage, who may have had limited ability to accumulate savings. Many countries are predicted to be in economic recession by the end of 2020 as a result of reduced productivity and spending (Figure 2). In June 2020, the World Bank predicted that Covid-19 could cause 71-100 million people to be pushed into extreme poverty during 2020.

Figure 2: Economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic’

In low-income countries, poverty increases the risks to health posed by Covid-19. Where living conditions are overcrowded and lack basic sanitation the virus is more easily transmitted. Health care systems, that are inadequately funded and already overstretched, are put under further strain by the pandemic with the risks of virus transmission heightened by the lack of appropriate protective equipment. Health of the poor is also compromised by food insecurity that is increased as global and domestic food supply chains are disrupted by the pandemic and food prices rise.

Education, that is often seen as a way to break the cycle of poverty and empower women to achieve gender equality, has also been disrupted by the pandemic; during lockdown, many schools were forced to close and students had to rely on remote learning. Students in lower income groups, however, were less likely to have access to digital learning resources or a home environment conducive to learning; it is these students who are amongst those most likely to fall behind in their education, resulting in a widening poverty gap.

During 2020, Covid-19 may result in measures of health, living standards and education falling for the first time since measurements began in 1990. The impact of changes in these indicators of human development are expected to be felt most severely by the already disadvantaged sectors of society and will hinder the progress of countries in achieving the targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals.

Environmental impacts

Changes that have occurred in human activity during the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in environmental change.

As tourism has declined during 2020, there is evidence that environments at some tourist destinations are becoming less damaged by trampling and waste, or disturbed by noise. Some areas, however, are becoming damaged by a rise in visitor numbers as more people have sought outdoor recreation opportunities when other leisure facilities have closed. In the USA, a rise in visitor numbers in some national parks has resulted in vandalism and people walking off trails to maintain a social distance. As conservation work, and ranger patrols in sensitive environments are being hampered by the fall in income from tourism, and the need to maintain social distancing, some national parks have been forced to close. Declines in tourism and difficulties in monitoring sensitive environments has also resulted in opportunity for illegal poaching, fishing and logging as local people seek alternative sources of income.

With the decline in production and transport activity, there has been an improvement in levels of air pollution in large cities, particularly levels of PM2.5 (particles of less than 2.5μm diameter), nitrogen dioxide and sulphur oxide. In China, where air pollution is estimated to cause a loss of 25 million healthy life years per annum, emissions fell by 25% at the start of 2020, with 337 cities recording an 84.5% increase in the number of days with good air quality in the first 3 months of 2020. This reduction in air pollution in China is thought to have saved 20 times the number of lives that have been lost due to the virus (although the concentration of PM2.5 is still four times higher than World Health Organisation recommendations).

Emissions of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, have also declined with the decrease in production and use of transportation, particularly vehicles and air traffic (Figure 3). Between January and March 2020, the number of airline passengers fell by 67 million compared to the same period in 2019, and regions in lockdown experienced a fall of 50-75% in road traffic. By early April 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions had decreased 17% compared to mean 2019 levels, but by June 2020 emissions were only 5% lower than in 2019. Although there has been a short-term decline in emissions of carbon dioxide, the longer-term trend is that carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase; in May 2020, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at a record high of 418 ppm, only 0.4ppm lower than it might have been had the pandemic not occurred.

Figure 3: Aircraft parked during Covid-19 pandemic

During Covid-19, there has been a rise in the volume of solid waste with residential waste expected to increase by approximately 30% in North America. The increase in solid waste has arisen from medical waste, use of personal protective equipment and from additional packaging due to a rise in online shopping and the need to package items such as food to avoid contamination during handling; some restaurants and coffee shops are now using disposable items to serve food and drink and no longer allow customers to bring their own re-usable coffee cups. Although waste has increased, however, many cities have stopped recycling waste during lockdown. Personal protective equipment such as disposable facemasks, latex gloves and plastic bottles of hand sanitizer are being found washed up on beaches around the world; this debris is slow to degrade, and is a source of marine pollution that can harm wildlife.

Future geographical directions

In August 2020, the UN reported that there is no end in sight for Covid-19 and that the effects of the virus might last for decades. This scenario requires that, as geographers, we examine current patterns of human activity to identify ways in which we interact, live and work that might reduce the spread of Covid-19 as well as be advantageous to our future wellbeing and the sustainability of the environment.

Globalisation has been associated with a rapid growth in trade and tourism throughout the past century but with restrictions to movement during Covid-19 changes in economic production and travel have occurred that may shape the future of these activities. With disruption of global supply chains, re-shoring of economic activity is becoming increasingly attractive to transnational corporations, particularly where automation of production can replace the financial advantages previously offered by cheap labour overseas. As international mass tourism has declined, the benefits to residents and the environment resulting from reduced crowding and pollution have prompted tourism destinations to consider a future shift towards low-volume, high-quality, sustainable tourism.

Urban areas, with their dense populations, concentration of human capital, business services and communications have traditionally been hubs of economic production and interactions at all scales; however, these characteristics have increased community transmission of Covid-19, and the changing patterns of human activity due to restrictions on movement are likely to shape development of urban areas in the future.

Many human interactions are now, where possible, being conducted online; this reduction in the need for people to interact face-to-face may result in some workers and economic activity moving to rural areas to avoid the negative externalities of large cities. Such decentralisation of people and employment is likely to impact on housing availability, traffic congestion, pollution and human wellbeing in both urban and rural areas.

Within urban areas, rates of community transmission of Covid-19 have been higher in areas of social disadvantage. In these areas, residents have greater difficulty in maintaining social distancing as they often live in overcrowded accommodation shared with several generations, rely on public transport and are employed in low-paying service sectors requiring face-to face interactions. Residents of high-income, high-density housing, however, are at a lower risk of infection as their skills are more conducive to working from home, and they have the financial resources to afford delivery of basic needs. With low quality housing increasing the risk of infection, future urban planning needs to incorporate high quality, affordable housing as a priority; with economic recession, however, the private and public financial resources to build such affordable housing are reduced.

During the pandemic, as people’s mobility has been restricted, the ability to access basic needs within the local neighbourhood has become of increased importance. With many people choosing to walk or cycle to their local shops and services, this has also brought about benefits to health, quality of life and environmental sustainability. As a result, there has been resurgence in the concept of urban neighbourhoods in urban planning.

Several cities are now considering the concept of a 15-minute city (proposed by Carlos Moreno in 2019) in which people can access their basic needs within 15 minutes of walking or cycling from home. Some cities are also proposing further measures to reduce car use and encourage walking and cycling into the future. In May 2020, London announced funding to improve infrastructure to encourage walking and cycling as healthier and greener travel habits.

During social isolation and social distancing, green space within urban areas has become increasingly important for individual and community physical and mental wellbeing, particularly for those living in areas of dense housing with limited garden area. With the predicted decline in the use of the car within cities, there are proposals to repurpose land currently used by cars as green spaces, cycle ways and pedestrianized areas.


It has been argued that human-induced stress on the environment is a cause of Covid-19. With the cutback in economic activity during the pandemic, there has been opportunity to witness, in the short-term, a trade-off between reduced human activity for economic growth and greater environmental sustainability (Figure 4). Although this trade-off has brought severe short-term impacts in terms of wealth, there is evidence that if we continue to exploit natural capital the losses in terms of human health and wealth may ultimately be greater. Evidence from social-science research suggests that moments of change are times to make interventions as habits are formed more easily, but whether we will choose this path in the longer term remains to be seen.

Figure 4: Choosing a more sustainable future after the Covid-19 pandemic

Student activities

1. Define the term zoonotic disease.

2. Outline the geographic factors that have influenced the spread of Covid-19.

3. Research the measures that have been taken where you live to limit the spread of Covid-19.

4. Discuss the social, economic and environmental impacts of Covid-19.

5. Draw a flow chart to show the social, economic and environmental changes that may occur if there is a shift of workers and economic activity from urban to rural areas.

6. Explain why the Covid-19 pandemic may make it difficult for countries to achieve their targets for the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

7. Urban neighbourhoods are a concept being considered by many cities for future urban planning. Draw a PMI chart to examine this concept.

8. Melbourne, Australia, asked residents to share how their priorities and perspectives on the future of the city have changed since the Covid-19 crisis. Discuss your views on this with regard to the place where you live.

9. Discuss the view that Covid-19 has brought an end to globalisation.


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