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Just how fast does COVID-19 spread? This visualization will shock you

It’s faster than I ever realized, and I’ve been covering this topic for most of 2020.

Just how fast does COVID-19 spread? This visualization will shock you
[Screen capture: covidspreadingrates.org]

By the time I count to 10, 22 more people around the globe have contracted COVID-19. I glance up a minute or so later, and the number has ballooned to over 300. And while I know COVID-19 is a global pandemic that’s taken nearly a million lives and counting, it’s exactly that “and counting” that’s giving me pause right now. COVID-19 is relentless.

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I’m on a site that’s called “COVID-19 Spreading Rates,” developed by data experience designer Jan Willem Tulp. Like countless pandemic visualizations before, it’s an interactive site that conveys the spread of COVID-19 worldwide. But instead of using world maps or line graphs, it features a series of radial progress bars, which count new COVID-19 cases as they come in.

[Screen capture: covidspreadingrates.org]

That means each country looks something like the Apple Watch activity tracker, but instead of steps, they depict new cases of COVID-19.

“I hope people become more aware of how fast the virus is spreading, especially in some countries,” says Tulp. “So by making it a bit more tangible, I hope people get a sense of urgency and responsibility.”

In Burundi, where a new COVID-19 case is found every 17 hours, that dial fills slowly—too slowly to see. But in the U.S., where a person is diagnosed with COVID-19 every 2.5 seconds, the graph is in a constant red spin. Since I loaded the page as I began writing this article, 339 Americans have tested positive for the virus. (The ticker isn’t displaying real-time diagnoses; it starts by analyzing the total COVID-19 cases tracked in each country during the week of September 7. Then it averages out the rate of those cases evenly through the day to make these ticking graphs. So it’s technically a simulation, but it’s built upon real, recent data.)

“There are already many COVID visualizations out there. But many of them are dashboards, maps, or common charts,” says Tulp. “What I think was missing was getting an intuitive sense for these numbers. What does it mean if there are 600 new cases reported?”

[Screen capture: covidspreadingrates.org]
With all of these constantly counting radial graphs, Tulp says his own project was “an eye-opener” to the constant spread of COVID-19 across the globe. India spins fast, with a new person getting COVID-19 every second. But if you toggle the new cases in proportion to population size rather than overall numbers, India’s spread feels downright slow. Meanwhile, smaller countries such as Guam, where the spread is proportionately faster, suddenly feel far worse off than you might originally assume.

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After a period of staring at the page, the counts can begin to become abstract. They’re just numbers that get bigger and bigger, rather than people getting sicker and sicker. But to counter this sensation, and to ensure the viewer doesn’t get too numb to the devastation, Tulp sends notifications on the top of the page, such as “1 person with COVID-19 reported in the United States.” Those notifications are a constant deluge of the human toll, by design. Instead of making you numb, the reminder that these figures are individual people can almost break your spirit.

Most of all, though, there’s no way to view this project and conclude that we have COVID-19 “under control.” Some 5,300 new cases of COVID-19 have been discovered just from the time I began writing this article. Actually, make that 5,600.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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