4 December 2023

Misleading: This map does not show 5 million Wuhan residents flying out before the lockdown

The map is merely “an illustrative picture of the global air network” that shows international flight connections.

A map created and published by WorldPop Project at the University of Southampton in the UK on Feb. 5 has been widely used by news media around the world.

The map is often associated with a misleading claim that it shows hundreds of thousands of Wuhan residents (or even 5 million of them) traveling out of the city during the Lunar New Year holiday before the Chinese authority began sealing the borders on Jan. 23 and imposed a quarantine.

For example, The Sun wrote that the “horrifying” map depicts “the unstoppable spread of deadly coronavirus across the globe.” Australia’s news.com.au said it demonstrates “staggering potential reach of the new coronavirus based on flight data.”

A morning TV show in Australia also used the map in their program, mistakenly saying that it shows “the predicted movements of 60,000 Wuhan residents who fled the Chinese city.”

An image search result shows that many other websites including Hong Kong’s unwire.hk and UK’s Metro have used the map with similar captions and phrasing.

Reverse image search result shows many other news articles with the map

These claims are misleading.

According to the creator of the map, it is “an illustrative picture of the global air network” and has no direct relationship with the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.

On Twitter, the WorldPop Project admitted the potential misunderstanding, deleted the original tweet (archived here), and recreated the map based on data in a research paper written by 10 academics titled “Assessing spread risk of Wuhan novel coronavirus within and beyond China, January-April 2020: a travel network-based modelling study.”

Unlike the international flight connection map that showed a high concentration of movement in Europe and North America, the actual research indicates that East and Southeast Asian countries were the top travel destinations for people from “high-risk Chinese cities.”

The new WorldPop Project map based on this data reflects this.

Map of travelers from Wuhan created by WorldPop Project

Annie Lab was first alerted about the misleading map by Anne Kruger from First Draft News, which prompted this investigation.