‘This is Geography’s Finest Hour’: Reflections on Mapping COVID-19 in Nigeria

‘This is Geography’s Finest Hour’: Reflections on Mapping COVID-19 in Nigeria


Tolulope Osayomi, Olalekan John Taiwo and Adeniyi S. Gbadegesin,

Dr. Tolulope Osayomi is a Medical Geographer at the Department of Geography, University of Ibadan where he lectures and directs the COVID-19 Mapping Lab.

Dr. Olalekan John Taiwo is a Senior Lecturer and the Head, Department of Geography, University of Ibadan. His areas of interest include GIS/Remote Sensing and Urban Health.

Prof Adeniyi S. Gbadegesin, the immediate past Vice-Chancellor of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso, is a Professor of Biogeography at the Department of Geography, University of Ibadan.




This is a great time to be a Geographer” – Jack Dangermond, ESRI President1


The above statement was made at the opening ceremony of the 2020 edition of the American Association of Geographers conference. It no doubt underscores the societal relevance of one of the most often misunderstood academic disciplines – Geography, especially in an unprecedented period such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the emergence of the novel virus in China and its outward movement to other parts of the world, Geography has displayed its full glory in mapping, and in the increasing application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), geovisualisation techniques, geospatial technologies in monitoring and forecasting the spread of the disease around the world.

The world has recorded over 4 million cases and over 270,000 deaths from this disease. In Nigeria, the first case originated from Italy on February 27, 2020. Since then, COVID-19 cases have exponentially increased to 3,145 on 6 May, 2020, in 34 States and the Federal Capital Territory, with 400 recoveries and 87 deaths.  This is particularly worrying for a country with the reputation of being the most populous in Africa, the continent’s economic engine room7 and the world’s poverty capital8.


COVID-19 Mapping Lab, University of Ibadan

In response to the growing health emergency in the country, some mapping initiatives from Visual Data 9, Eagle’s Orbit, Dhgis International, just to mention a few, have emerged. They consistently design national COVID-19 prevalence maps. A wide array of practical online/mobile GIS and mapping dashboards such as the widely known John Hopkins University Centre for Systems Science and Engineering Dashboard2 are tracking the progression of the virus around the world in near-real time situations.  

A virtual laboratory called the COVID-19 Mapping Lab was set up in the Department of Geography, University of Ibadan on the 23rd March, 2020. Prior to the lab’s take-off, daily updates generally were mere written statements of state-by-state figures on confirmed cases. Thus, there was an apparent lack of geo-visualisation of the pandemic. Moreover, the few maps published online did not well depict the magnitude of the health crisis. Lastly, there were requests for maps from members of the public on the COVID-19 situation at the local government level in some specific states.  In light of these, the lab produces daily and easy-to-interpret map updates showing the distribution of COVID-19 cases, with standard cartographic techniques. The lab also applied  spatial analytic tools in monitoring, predicting and controlling the geographical pattern and diffusion of COVID-19.   


Through Geographic lens

Identifying the location of the virus is critical to its suppression. Thus, mapping the COVID-19 disease has led to enquiries about spatial patterns. The geography of COVID-19 transmission in Nigeria2 has shown that Lagos is the epicentre. The virus tends to spread quickly in areas with large populations; higher population density, high traffic flows, relatively good transport networks, and proximity to major entry points. Above all, traffic flow was the most significant influence on COVID-19 transmission.2  

Cities such as Lagos, Abuja and Kano have a significant proportion of the national burden. Unfortunately, there is no finer geographic distribution of the COVID-19 cases at local level in these places; not because granular data does not exist but perhaps due to  what can be described as  ‘place stigmatisation’- a situation in which communities or neighbourhoods are derogatorily labelled as COVID-19 hotbeds. This, in turn, might be partly responsible for what might be described as ‘COVID-19 induced migration’ of people from perceived high-risk places to seemingly lower risk territories. Several media reports have indicated increased interstate movements in the country despite restrictions on movement, as the infection intensifies and spreads to other states despite the state border closures and restricted movements.


A Pandemic of Five Lessons

After careful reflection, this mapping exercise gives five take-away lessons:

1.      The First Law of Geography Comes to Light

The pandemic has reminded us of the law which states “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”. It has shown how interconnected, interdependent and ultimately vulnerable we are as a global community. The fact that COVID-19 moved from one city to the whole world within weeks proves the frequently stressed point that no territory lives in isolation, irrespective of geographic distance.  

Interestingly, Kogi and Cross River states are the only ones in Nigeria yet to report any cases of COVID-19, as they are refusing to test their residents. Kogi state shares borders with 10 states and the Federal Capital Territory, all of which have reported cases. The state also forms part of the major transport corridor in northern Nigeria – hosting numerous travellers of different origins. Cross River, on the other hand, shares an international boundary with Cameroun, where cross border movements have also been reported.


2.      Never Underestimate the Power of the Map

The map is the Geographer’s tool. Without the map, it would be hard to tell who are at risk of COVID-19, where and why? Knowing who, where and why uncovers hotspots of infections and aids decision making for public health officials on applicable contextual interventions. The map helps to inform government decisions on the allocation of frontline workers, medical equipment such as drugs, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and testing centres/laboratories.  The map also keeps the public abreast of the spread of the infection, and reveals the effectiveness of government-approved precautionary measures such as  use of face masks in public spaces, proper hand hygiene and so on.

The map saved the city of London during the 1854 Cholera epidemic through the ingenuity of John Snow, the “Father of Modern Medical Geography”. Let the map save Nigeria too.


3.      Many Carriers, Increased Mobility and The Absence of Barriers is the Recipe for a Pandemic

This pandemic has revealed in clear terms that infectious diseases require carriers, human mobility, and the absence of barriers to diffuse effectively2. Moreover, densely populated areas are more susceptible to high disease transmission. In the absence of a pharmaceutical solution, behavioural avoidance measures such as closure of public places and physical distancing are strictly enforced. Human mobility via air, land or sea routes also contributes to the spread of the disease. The first reported cases in the early phase of the pandemic in Lagos and Abuja were returnees from international travel, while index cases in Ebonyi and Adamawa States, for were those who travelled from Lagos and Kano respectively.   Barriers are those concrete or intangible things that are capable of slowing down or stopping the spread of COVID-19 such as use of face mask, good respiratory hygiene, handwashing practice, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, closure of public places etc. An absence of these barriers accelerates the spread of the virus, hence the enforcement of various measures across nigeria


4.      Data is Life

The public health crisis has revealed major data gaps in Nigeria. For example, the operational national census data is already 14 years old, and a new count is already four years overdue! Many data sources are either unavailable or outdated. Little wonder the Governor of Lagos, Mr Babajide Sanwoolu identified the dearth of data in economic planning and governance as a major constraint in addressing the pandemic. What is more important in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic is the need for geospatial data at granular levels. Available data is too aggregated, which unfortunately masks variations at the microscale and impedes targeted interventions. Hence, it is necessary to disaggregate real-time COVID-19 prevalence data to the local government area level in all affected states11 particularly Lagos, Kano and FCT if we must truly flatten the growth curve.


5.      One Size Does Not Fit All

Though the whole world is troubled by the virus, the frequency and intensity of the pandemic varies unevenly.  This clearly explains why different countries have adopted different responses, besides the WHO recommended measures. South Korea and China used contact tracing apps to control the spread; Nigeria welcomes phytomedicine solutions, while Madagascar has formulated an organic mixture for the disease, which is now in high demand from African countries. Likewise, states in the country are responding differently to a common enemy. The Lagos State is currently strengthening the primary healthcare centres, as conducting community active case search while Cross River and Ogun states enforced the use of face mask. In addition, Cross River and Abia states are exploring economic opportunities by activating their factories for the production of facemasks, PPEs and other COVID19 related items.  In Kano, a targeted lockdown was enforced by the Federal Government and recently extended for a week by the Kano State Government. No doubt, states must still look inward and find home grown ways out of the pandemic, without imitating culturally inappropriate options. Therefore, the one-size-fits-all approach is absolutely unsuitable and could be potentially inimical to disease prevention and control. Differential responses might hopefully lead us to a fully recovered Nigeria.


Concluding statement

Truly, it is a great time for Geography and Geographers. The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered its immense value as an academic discipline, and as a veritable tool with strong potential for guiding the world and the country through “the new normal” of living with the virus. The virus has utterly exposed the inequalities, inefficiencies and vulnerabilities of the global society and local communities. Therefore, it behooves geography, alongside other disciplines to help society rethink new ways of governance, social welfare, water and sanitation, health care provision, and development in general.



Jack Dangermond ‘s address to 2020 American Association of Geographers Virtual conference https://web.facebook.com/geographers/posts/10156959406623239?_rdc=1&_rdr

John Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard  https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html accessed online 10/5/2020

Osayomi, T. (2020) Understanding the Geography of COVID-19 transmission in Nigeria  doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.15465.65121/1 (preprint on ResearchGate)

 The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria

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