Social distancing working in Italy but epidemic could be determined by population demographics

Social distancing working in Italy but epidemic could be determined by population demographics
Copyright Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Copyright Alessandra Tarantino/AP
By Lauren Chadwick
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Researchers at the University of Oxford studied the mortality rate and age demographics in Italy and South Korea to show how this could account for the impact of the epidemic on countries’ populations.


Social distancing is already having an effect in Italy, but understanding age demographics could help better understand how the epidemic will play out in countries, sociologists say.

The effects of the lockdown in Lodi — near Milan in northern Italy — enacted in late February shows a flattening of the curve of the epidemic, says researchers at the University of Oxford.

Flattening the curve is a term that is being employed to show that measures such as confinement and social distancing can delay and reduce the peak of an epidemic. 

This means fewer people are in intensive care units in hospitals, which will help to slow the burden on health care systems.

"While cases in the province of Bergamo began to increase from Feb 24th - in contrast to Lodi - no shutdowns or restrictions were imposed," the Oxford sociologists note in a study on how demographics can affect the epidemic.

The entire province of Lombardy, which includes Lodi and Bergamo, was instead shut down roughly two weeks later on March 8.

Cases in Bergamo have surpassed those in Lodi.

The sociologists also studied the mortality rate and age demographics in Italy and South Korea to show how this could account for the trajectory of the epidemic in the countries.

Fatal cases of coronavirus were unexpected in Italy, for instance, due to the “health and wealth” of northern Italy, but “Italy is one of the oldest populations in the world with 23.3% of its population over the age 65, compared to 12% in China,” the sociologists said.

Italy has the most deaths of any country after China.

There is “a dramatically higher burden of mortality in countries with older versus younger populations,” the researchers said, adding that cultural practices such as “the social connectedness of older and younger generations” should be taken into account when governments make policies of confinement.

They said that in Italy there are “extensive inter-generational contacts” including adult children and their parents living closely together, which may account for older citizens coming into contact with the virus.

The researchers compare the Italian outbreak to the Korean one, which is concentrated among younger populations, recruited by the Schincheonji religious group.

The largest amount of cases recorded in Korea are in people between the ages of 20-29, an age group that is underrepresented in Italian case data.

This could also be due to where the outbreak started or differences in testing, noted economist Andreas Backhaus in an article on why the virus is so deadly in Italy. Italy is testing mostly people with symptoms of the virus, but asymptomatic carriers can also transmit the virus.

The study suggests that in countries where there are more younger people, the outbreak may not cause as many deaths, the researchers say.

"Population ageing is currently more pronounced in wealthier countries, which mercifully may lessen the impact of this pandemic on poorer countries with weaker health systems but younger age structures," said researchers led by Jennifer Dowd and Melissa Mills at the University of Oxford.

They added that understanding how the virus impacts populations could provide insight into how the pandemic may unfold.


One difference they noted is the mortality rates between men and women, for instance. An explanation for this could be that more men smoke than women in Asian countries, they said.

But another reason is differences in testing, it's claimed.

"If only the most severe or hospitalised cases are tested, this will likely overestimate the mortality rate. So the more widespread testing we can do the better our mortality estimates will be," Dr Jennifer Dowd, one of the study authors, told Euronews.

Read more: Are undetected cases helping rapid spread of coronavirus in Europe?

They're calling on more governments to release population data to better understand how the coronavirus is affecting people in different countries.

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