A Demographer’s View of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Previously published on The New Yorker.

Source Photograph by Chris McGrath / Getty

El envejecimiento de la población es una oportunidad de negocio

C. Jessica Metcalf, a professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and public affairs at Princeton, is a demographer who studies the spread of infectious diseases. Her work on health policy has special importance now, as scientists and public officials seek to halt the spread of covid-19, the novel coronavirus. I recently spoke twice by phone with Metcalf about her work and how demographers assist in the response to rapidly spreading diseases. During our conversations, which have been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed what demography can teach us about the effectiveness of school closings, the history of disease outbreaks having a disproportionate effect on certain age groups, and what demographers have learned about aging societies.

What principally interests you, as a demographer, about the coronavirus?

There are probably many risk factors associated with the coronavirus, and it feels like we learn something new and different every day about it. But one of the clear signals that seems to come through is that there is an age trajectory of morbidity and mortality that’s very striking. The older individuals seem to be at greater risk. And, as a demographer, this gives you one lever to try and predict what the consequences will be as the virus moves through different countries, since one of the striking differences between countries around the world is age profile. Of course, there are a million other differences as well. Health-system functioning will tend to go in the other direction, but it gives you one projection to make. What I mean is that countries that are on average older, which tend to be the more developed countries, also have better functioning health systems, so, even though the burden might be greater, they will have greater ability to meet it.

Does demography teach us anything about the way we can counteract the virus? How would demography help us in fighting its spread?

So, demography is a very broad umbrella. I call myself a demographer because that means you can do anything, right—because everything is born and dies. And, arguably, a lot of the tools that one uses to capture and describe infectious-disease dynamics are, at some scale, demographic tools. For example, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the very famous—very famous in a very small circle—susceptible-infected-recovered model.

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