As one who endorsed the GEN Covid Statement at our International meeting on 3 May I wish to respond to Alan Thornett’s main criticism of that statement. He argues:
“The blind-spot, for me, is the issue of human population density– particularly in the form of urbanisation and the increasing size of ‘mega’ or ‘hyper’ cities. Such density is an important factor both in terms of the ‘zoonotic’ transition of viruses between species, their development into pandemics, and the way pandemics are becoming more frequent (and more dangerous) despite the increasing deployment of modern medical science against them.”
He believes the evidence for this is ‘overwhelming’. It is almost certainly the case that, other things being equal, population density and ‘mega’ cities are a factor in the spread of viral infection but other things are far from being equal and when we look at the overall picture the evidence that population density is an important or major factor is far from overwhelming.
It is all very well to compare London or New York with San Francisco or rural areas in the UK and US, But what about India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Bahrain, and Taiwan where population density is multiple times what is in the US or UK but the Covid infection rate is enormously lower? And what about the comparison between the Netherlands and Belgium – two adjacent and similar countries – where the Netherlands is considerably more densely populated (421 per Sq Km versus 376 per sq. km) but the death rate is much lower (322 per million to 756 per million)? Or Vietnam and the UK where population density is about the same (290 and 280 per sq.km respectively) but the death rate in the UK is one of the highest in the world and that in Vietnam is zero! And it is the same when we look at mega cities. Giving exct population statistics for cities in the Global South is very difficult but it is indisputable that the likes of Mumbai, Kolkata, Manila, Baghdad, Dhaka and Lagos have huge populations and are more densely populated than New York or London yet all havevery low or miniscule infection and death rates by comparison.
Take Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh as one example .Dhaka has a population of approximately 20 million out of the total for Bangladesh of over 160 million. Population density for Bangladesh is 1,265 per sq.km and for Dhaka is 23,234 per sq.km (5 X that of London) yet the TOTAL deaths for Bangladesh, as of 13 Ma, were 269, much less than a single day’s deaths in the UK.
So why was it a blind spot of our statement not to focus on it and why does Alan Thornett bring it up? Unfortunately the answer is because he believes that population growth or ‘overpopulation is a major factor in the general environmental crisis of the Anthropocene.
He immediately goes on to quote Jonathan Quirke as follows:
“Consider how just one risk factor, population growth, leads to a whole set of others. The New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman was right: the world is hot flat and crowded, and it’s getting more so. The world’s human population is now more than 7.5 billion. It projected to increase by more than two billion people by mid-century, exploding to 8.1 billion by 2025 and 9.6 billion by 2050. More than half of that number will be born in Africa and most of them will be packed into dense urban areas where an epidemic can spread like wildfire.”
This is the kind of populationist scare mongering that has been familiar since Paul Erhlich and ‘The Population Bomb’. A rise in global population from 7.B5 billion to 8.1 billion by 2025 and 9.6 billion by 2050 is NOT an explosion. It represents a SLOWING in the rate of population growth. The invocation by Quirke of Africa is, sadly, tinged with racism. Unfortunately Alan Thornett, who is certainly not personally a racist, seems to have a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to the racist overtones of statements like ‘More than half of that number will be born in Africa’. Thornett also links population density to ‘its corollary, poverty and deprivation’. This is also false and dangerous. Poverty and deprivation are not a corollary of population density. Rural poverty was and is generally worse than urban poverty (which is why people move to cities). Manhattan is very densely populated but hugely rich compared to most of the world; Singapore and Hong Kong are amongst the most densely populated places in the world but are also among the richest places, on average, in Asia.
Finally, IF it were to be conceded that population density, huge cities and population are major problems, what could or should be done about them? Sure in some democratic ecosocialist world of the future we could redesign urban living to be all spread out like a garden city and the division between town and country is transcended (as Marx envisioned) but what could we do in the here and now. One thing seems clear: ‘having a conversation’ about them would do nothing at all except, like ‘having a conversation about immigration’, open the way to racist and authoritarian ideas and policies from the right.