EU Science Hub

One size does not fit all: coronavirus strategies should consider demographic and geographic factors

JRC scientists analysed the spread of the virus at different stages of the epidemic.
JRC scientists analysed the spread of the virus at different stages of the epidemic.
Jun 17 2020

The coronavirus is more difficult to contain in densely populated areas and affects differently the different age and gender segments of the population.

A JRC analysis urges to consider geographic and demographic factors in the planning of the next stages of coronavirus mitigation strategies.

As the global COVID-19 infection and death rates rose, evidence grew on the factors that facilitate the spread of the virus and make an individual more vulnerable to it.

JRC researchers analysed the geographic spread of the virus as well as the age and gender of the patients in view of informing the measures for gradually reopening the EU.

“There is no one strategy that will work for all regions and segments of the population, because some are more vulnerable than others. The effectiveness of the measures for lifting the lockdown while containing the spread of the virus will also depend on how well they take into consideration demographic and geographic factors”, said JRC researcher Fabrizio Natale.

The gender imbalance

The COVID-19 related mortality rate is higher for men in all age groups. This could be due to gender-based immunological differences or higher prevalence of hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, smoking or drinking among men.

Although men are more likely to die from the coronavirus, there are more infected women than men in the younger segments of the population (60 years or under).

Scientists say that this could be linked to the high proportion of women working in the healthcare sector.

“Health-care workers and nurses working in elderly care homes - the majority of whom are women – are at the forefront of the coronavirus crisis. We’ve seen high infection rates among women during other epidemics for this same reason. This was the case also during the Ebola pandemic”, Natale explains.

The JRC analysis shows that up to 11% of women of age 40-45 infected by the virus are healthcare professionals, in contrast to just 5% of men.

The urban-rural divide

The coronavirus has hit hard very different places, from big cities such as Wuhan, Milan, London and New York, to small villages in the Lombardy and Veneto regions of Northern Italy.

The size of the population as well as the age, education, wealth, social capital and type of employment of the residents all jointly influence the vulnerability of a given area.

JRC scientists analysed the spread of the virus in 187 urban regions, 374 intermediate regions and 286 rural regions at different stages of the epidemic.

The analysis confirms that the pandemic started earlier and has been more difficult to contain in densely populated areas, in comparison with areas with lower population density.

The scientists found that in the first 10 days of the epidemic, the estimated reproduction number (R0) was on average 3 in urban areas, meaning that each new positive case infected other three persons.

The average reproduction number was on average 2.8 for the intermediate areas and 2.6 for the rural areas. 

The reproduction number gradually decreases over time, and the differences between the different types of areas become smaller, but still remain.

Using data to inform policies

The JRC study encourages authorities to consider demographic and geographic profiling when deciding on the measures aimed at lifting the lockdown, so to protect the more vulnerable segments of society.

However, scientists warn against taking the data at face value, as there are several shortcomings in the current data collection methods.

The JRC study was based on reported cases and fatalities and does not include many asymptomatic and unreported cases. It fed into a study on the impact of demographic change in Europe, published today by the European Commission.