The COVID-19 pandemic is worldwide, but there are many more cases in some areas than others.
The primary reason is population density, the number of people living in the area per square mile. New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the epidemic, consists of 468.9 square miles, has a population of 18.8 million and therefore, has a density of 40,102 people per square mile. This concentration of the population resulted in 170,534 testing positive for COVID-19 with 13,536 people having died. The people testing positive are 0.08% of the population or nine per 1,000.
We can make a similar comparison for Chittenden County, which is the Vermont “epicenter.” It has a land area of 620 square miles, and a population of 164,572 resulting in a density of 265 people per square mile. It has, to date, 423 people tested positive and 36 people have died. The positive tests are 0.003% of the population or 2.5 per thousand.
In contrast, the rural county of Essex has a land area of 674 square miles, just a little larger than Chittenden County, but a population of only 6,213 people, resulting in a density of only 9.2 people per square mile. Only two residents have tested positive and no one had died as of May 4. The positive tests are 0.0003%.
The main reason more people become infected in more densely populated areas, of course, is that prior to the stay at home orders, they were in closer contact with a lot more people as they live in crowded neighborhoods, ate out a lot in restaurants, worked in crowded situations, shopped in crowded stores, walked on crowded streets, rode in crowded buses or subways, and attended events with hundreds or thousands of people. Even though people are staying home more, keeping their distance, and wearing masks, the infection is spreading.
So, what does this mean for Vermont? Several experts in the past predicted the rise of infectious disease. In the Beyond Malthus published in 1999, the authors stated, “Increase in population number and densities will make the threat of infectious disease even more acute.” Now, today’s experts are predicting more epidemics are to come. Therefore, if we want to keep Vermont’s mortality rate from future epidemics as low as possible, we should not be encouraging more development and more population growth. Having a smaller Vermont population will certainly present many challenges but dealing with those challenges, rather than more epidemics, will be better for all of us.
As the young college student Margit Burgess wrote in a recent commentary, “ we need to move to what is referred to as a steady state economy, an economy that uses the environmental resources in a sustainable way and that distributes wealth in an equitable manner. Such an economy will not only help to reduce the impacts of future epidemics it will also bring more income equality, help to maintain our quality of life, and protect the environment.”
The “stay at home” order for this pandemic has dramatically changed our lives and in terms of dealing with even greater long-term catastrophe of global heating, has had a positive result. There is a lot less traffic on the roads and carbon emissions have dramatically gone down from that source. People are reaching out more to neighbors. Early signs are that Vermonters are going to be growing more of their own food. This is all an indication we can make major changes in our lifestyles and how we spend our money. Let us move to a new “normal” that is good for us as individuals, good for the economy, and good for the Earth and all life on it.
George Plumb lives in Washington.