There’s Something COVID-19 Hotspot Countries Have in Common

First-world problems

Wrong. The ‘developed’ world has been much harder hit by the pandemic of COVID-19 spread. Curiously, the virus seems to target wealthier countries — and there seems to be a correlation not just with wealth, but ties to the West.

Here’s a map from Our World in Data that shows coronavirus case distribution and density as of 6/16/2020:

COVID-19 spread in june 2020 world map
Our World in Data, 6/16/2020

The common explanation for the higher concentration of cases in (for the most part) wealthier, westernized countries is that of course, more testing = more cases.

While it’s true that more developed countries have better infrastructure for mass testing (or so we thought), disparities in testing capacity do not account for the differences in concentration of the disease. This map is based on the test positive rate — how many people test positive from a million administered tests.

test positivity is a better metric to look at when assessing COVID-19 spread

Test positivity rate controls for population and testing capacity differences.

Countries like the U.S. and many European nations have the highest test positive rates.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, India has performed just shy of 6 million tests and diagnosed 350,000 people, a 5.7% test positive rate. The U.S. has performed right around 16 million tests with 2.1 million positives — a rate of over 13%.

That means the infection rate is more than 100% higher in the U.S. than it is India. Seems out of step with what we’ve been told, given that India’s population density (people per square mile) is over 1200% higher than that of the U.S. — particularly if the virus is airborne.

Strangely, some of the world’s most densely populated regions, such as Southeast Asia, seem to have fared better. On the other hand, some of the world’s less densely populated areas such as the Americas, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, are among the most afflicted.

COVID-19 spread doesn't correlate with population density
Our World in Data

This data suggests two things: Population density — and even global economic status — are not the main predictors of the virus’s spread.

So what is?

Meat of the story

AsBrazil made international headlines for surging case numbers and climbed to the #2 spot on the list no one wants to rank on, I happened to be rewatching an episode of The Patriot Act,I was reminded of a passion Americans share with Brazilians.

Brazil is the world’s leading beef exporter. The United States consumes the most meat pound for pound.

Some of the hardest hit countries also share this passion. They also happen to be among the top U.S. and Brazilian beef importers.

COVID-19 spread in june 2020 world map correlates with meat per capital consumption
Our World in Data

The similarities between this map and that of COVID-19’s spread are impossible not to notice — and they get pretty granular, too.

Compare the case concentration in countries across Africa, a 54-nation continent with the country’s corresponding meat consumption rates.

COVID-19 spread in june 2020 world map

The top two most COVID-19-afflicted African countries also happen to be the same two countries that have the highest rates of meat consumption. For perspective, the odds that the same 2 out of 54 countries would be randomly selected twice is about 0.001%.

Also worth noting — neither of them (South Africa nor Gabon) are among the top five most densely populated countries in Africa. Their rates of COVID-19 spread are much lower. 

Answers in Gabon and Nigerian COVID-19 spread patterns

Gabon is a small, Sub-saharan African nation of around 2 million people. On the COVID-19 spread test positive density map, it seems strangely singled out compared to surrounding African countries.

COVID-19 spread in june 2020 world map

The small West African nation also has minimal international travel traffic, widely assumed to be a potential channel for the virus’s spread.

2016 release by Oxford Business Group estimated that between 180,000–200,000 people had visited Gabon that year. That’s small dice compared to fellow African nation Nigeria, who’s airports handled 2.2 million arrivals in 2019.

Thus, Gabon has a lower population density and not even 10% of Nigeria’s annual international air traffic.

Both nations are in Western Africa, home to the disease-carrying tsetse fly. The Gabonese used to raise cattle, but the tsetse flies annihilated their herds. Though in recent years, the country has had some success breeding tsetse-resistant cattle, the process is inherently long. In the meantime, Gabon is heavily reliant on meat imports from other countries to meet consumer demand.

But not just any other countries.

2019 report release by IndexBox reads:

“Gabon is two-thirds dependent on imports of meat and poultry. National production of meat and poultry in Gabon is not sufficient to meet domestic consumption, so the market is largely dependent on supplies from the countries specializing in its production, like the U.S. and Brazil.”

– IndexBox Report, 2019

Why are we hearing so much about the U.S. and Brazil in the same breath lately?

Meanwhile, the nearby, much more densely populated, and international travel hub nation of Nigeria has almost 196 million people (compared to Gabon’s 2 million) but remains a preferable shade of ballet pink in the virus concentration levels map.

test positivity rates of COVID-19 in june 2020 world map

Nigeria has one of the largest populations in Africa. And like Gabon, it also has to deal with challenges of raising cattle amidst the tsetse fly.

However, unlike Gabon, according to a report released by the USDA:

“There are several challenges exporters face when doing business in Nigeria. Since 2005, Nigeria has maintained import bans on several agricultural products from all countries, including beef, pork, and poultry.”


As Nigeria’s economy continues to improve, the demand for beef rises and cannot be fully met by the country’s farmers. Unmet demand is supplemented by neighboring West African countries — not the U.S. or Brazil.

Niegeria did not have nearly as high rates of COVID-19 spread as neighboring Gabon

Perhaps that’s why Trump perplexingly included Nigeria in the February 2nd travel ban as a response to COVID-19. Nigeria’s first known case wouldn’t be recorded until almost four weeks later, on February 27th.

Back in India, where the test positive rate is less than half of that in the U.S. (already accounting for testing capacity and size of populations), lies another possible clue.

Somewhere between 20–40% of Indians are vegetarian.

A whopping 80%+ don’t eat beef, largely due to religious customs.

Early epicenters of COVID-19 spread

In the U.S., the most efficient meat producer in the world, packing plants continue to be epicenters of major outbreaks that subsequently spread into the community. These are some of the bigger and/or more recent outbreaks in the news:

  • One Smithfield meat packing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota had an outbreak of over 900 cases. The county would clock an additional 1480+ cases — by far the state’s highest — among the plant workers’ family members.
  • Almost 600 cases were diagnosed in a single Tyson meat packing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa. Twenty-five workers died.
  • A National Beef plant in Tama, Iowa, had 177 positive cases before pausing operations.
  • Earlier this week, a JBS meatpacking facility reportedly had an outbreak with 287 cases known so far.
  • 900 cases were recorded in one plant in Logansville, Indiana

List goes on.

Tyson meat factory looks for employees. Meat may have played a role in COVID-19 spread
Hey, the job market ain’t so bad after all. Tyson is hiring!

No surprises here

It’s old news that most viruses come from animals.

  • MERS is believed to have transmitted from camels to humans via either meat or milk
  • H1N1, or the Spanish Flu of 1918 that killed over 50 million people, originated in birds, likely poultry
  • Anthrax, AIDS, rabies, SARS, the Bubonic Plague, etc…yup, animals.

While the exact connection between COVID-19 spread and American/Brazilian meat production is unclear, there a close enough correlation to warrant deeper investigation. If it’s like most viruses, contact with infected bodily fluid would do it. Whatever the connection is, it contains critical information about the virus’s mode of transmission.

One way we could find out would be to start noting COVID-19 positive patients’ dietary preferences.

We can also test meat and livestock at processing plants for the virus, with an emphasis on beef. It’s possible COVID-19 spread through the handling of or even consumption of raw (or rare) meat, but is more transmissible than other food-borne illnesses due to it’s well documented ability to stay viable on surfaces for hours.

It’s also possible that this virus has a higher point of solubility than other food born illnesses, requiring higher temperatures to be dissolved. That would follow considering its history with bats.

bats have been blamed for COVID-19 spread
FYI, the bat species associated with COVID-19 spread isn’t as cute at this one. You’re welcome.

Bats’ internal temperature runs high, and if the virus can adapt to those conditions, it can withstand the human immune system’s defensive response of high fever.

Compared to chicken and pork, beef is often served rare or pink in the middle.

The human toll of COVID-19 spread

Meat packing workers are hiding from their ‘essential’ jobs, justifiably in fear for their lives. Meanwhile, meatpacking industry leaders insist on reopening plants, citing imaginary shortages and opportunistically raising prices across the country — all the while remaining the world’s largest meat exporter.

In fact, the U.S. exported a record amount of meat to China April, the country Trump repeatedly insists is to blame for the virus’s outbreak. (I wouldn’t eat that, China). Behind the scenes, Trump is thwarting efforts to investigate the virus’s origins.

Not to mention, vaccine developers are trying to find antibodies in cow blood that will work within human immune systems. Those antibodies probably didn’t develop in cow blood on their own, and presumably, that cow had antibodies because it had the virus.

Make no mistake — our leaders know. It’s no coincidence that the world’s leading meat suppliers were also the countries whose leaders downplayed the seriousness of the virus despite having ample evidence to the contrary.

They are going to great lengths to hide it.

They’re doing so with the support of back-pocket politicians for no discernible reason than good ol’ fashioned fat cat greed (and to hold up the meat industry’s long legacy of exceptionally exploitative practices).

More power than you think

To curtail the spread of the virus on a personal level while scientists develop a vaccine to put this mess behind us once and for all. Until we know more, we have to take every precaution including wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.

When buying meat, check your supply sourcing thoroughly. Because so many of the large-scale outbreaks are associated with the Big 4 (Cargill, JBS, Tyson, and Smithfield), buying from smaller, local farms might be a safer route in the coming months. When preparing meat, be sure to cook all the way through (including beef).

Abstaining (or more carefully sourcing) pushes back on politicians hanging their communities out to dry. And since we can’t appeal to their humanity, we’ll have to remind ourselves that money talks — probably, in effect, more than your vote (but still vote).

Since we can’t rely on leaders to tell us the truth nor protect public health, yet again, the People will have to take matters into their own hands. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long, long time before the arrival of a post-COVID world.



Update: Upside Chronicles did a follow-up story on COVID-19 spread and potential unaccounted for vectors which can be read here


  • Tanja Fijalkowski

    Tanja Fijalkowski is an award-winning writer, editor, and designer. A North Bay Area native, she has written for various financial, business, history, and science publications. She's a deep-dive researcher with a strong command of data analysis and simplifying complex concepts.

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