In the United States, didn’t covid-19 first rage through New York, America’s largest city? Doesn’t the density of such places make them inevitable hot spots for highly contagious viruses? Haven’t people instinctively fled to the countryside during epidemics at least since the Middle Ages?
Actually, studies show urban living may not be as covid-risky as you might suspect. Last June researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Utah found that density wasn’t linked to infection rates in US counties after accounting for metropolitan-area population, socioeconomic factors, and health-care infrastructure; rather, connectivity between counties through such things as travel mattered more for viral spread and mortality. A paper published by Germany’s IZA Institute of Labor Economics in July found that while covid-19 was more likely to show up sooner in denser counties, population density didn’t correlate with the overall number of cases and deaths.
Cities are resilient, just like the people who live there.
In other words, when it comes to the coronavirus, density isn’t destiny. New York City was initially the US epicenter of the pandemic in part because of its status as an international destination, but its weekly caseload dropped as safety measures took root. (Case numbers there spiked again last fall as hot spots reemerged and the holidays arrived, and again in February as new variants spread, though vaccinations hold the promise of driving them down again.)
Rural counties in Alaska, Colorado, and Texas—far from dense population centers—were hit hard around the start of 2021, each with more than 100 daily cases per 100,000 residents, according to the New York Times. Yet high-density cities in Asia and Australia were able to rein in the coronavirus last year. Even China, where covid-19 was first discovered, effectively subdued the pandemic for its 1.4 billion people, 60% of whom live in cities.
This isn’t to say density is irrelevant to covid-19 transmission, or that we fully understand how the disease propagates. Some research, including a study published last July by JAMA Network Open, has connected population density with coronavirus spread. A study published in the journal PLOS One in December concluded that “density matters,” though it seemed to make more of a difference in the later stages of outbreaks than at the onset.