Demography and COVID-19: Reflections from PSTC Faculty Associates

April 13, 2020

As communities around the world led by medical professionals and infectious disease experts work tirelessly to mitigate the spread and consequences of COVID-19, many researchers have considered whether they can offer insight. Can the population expertise of demographers help explain the virus’s relentless spread? Can statisticians analyze complex models and predictions, while economists generate solutions to help the economy bounce back? We asked three PSTC faculty associates how their areas of research might come into play as the world combats this global crisis.

Michael White, Professor of Sociology and Director of Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences (S4), believes that the team of researchers involved in the PSTC’s NIH-funded R01 project, “Migration Urbanization and Health in a Transition Setting,” a study conducted in South Africa, has generated findings that can be useful in predicting the effects of geographic mobility on how the novel coronavirus might spread in rural settings.

White explained, “Our research to date confirms the need to consider and measure multiple forms of human mobility to gauge the pace and geography of the spread of the virus. For instance, work done by our team—with key contributions by PSTC trainees Becca Wang and Chantel Pheiffer—demonstrates that the rural-origin study population (much like elsewhere in South Africa and around the world) manifests a high level of geographic mobility, contrary to assumptions often made about rural dwellers. For instance, we found that nearly 40 percent of the young adult sample had moved out of their rural home district by the time of our first wave (2018) of data collection, and this had increased to 53 percent by the time of the second wave (2019).”

White highlighted the need for public health officials to consider the relatively high level of geographic mobility in rural communities when implementing policies to combat the virus. “Notably, South Africa, our team’s research site, recently announced a three-week nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus,” he added.

Another PSTC faculty associate, Professor and Chair of Biostatistics and Professor of Public Health Joe Hogan, thinks his area of scholarship may be used to develop an understanding of how the pandemic has impacted people with chronic conditions. “At present I am working on a couple of proposals that would aid health care providers in monitoring the impact of COVID on patients with chronic conditions who rely on regular contact with the health system (e.g., HIV),” Hogan said.

He added, “More generally, as a statistician I think I can be helpful in interpreting the models being developed by epidemiologists and infectious disease modelers. I am not a developer of these models, but I have a reasonable understanding of how they work and how to interpret their inputs and outputs. And what kinds of limitations they might have.” While statisticians without infectious disease expertise do not necessarily have the tools to develop such models, Hogan hopes that they can still help people understand the implications of the various models and predictions being generated.

Along with demographers and statisticians, economists have found ways to apply their research to the current situation. Professor of Economics David Weil offers insight on how exactly economists might evaluate these outcomes.

“The big economic effect of the disease is not coming from people being sick, but rather from people not going to work and similarly not spending money,” Weil noted. Thus, the lagging economy is not exclusively the result of lost productivity because people are sick, but of the decreased earning and spending by healthy people as well.

With this in mind, he suggested that “Assuming that the country manages to avoid a truly massive loss of life, the tools that economists are going to want to use and the questions that they are going to want to ask in understanding the effects of the epidemic are the ones that we would use for recessions and depressions that have more conventional causes: What should the stances of fiscal and monetary policy be? What will happen to firm and household balance sheets? What does this do to the sustainability of government debt?  Will there be ‘scarring’ of workers who were entering the labor force at the time of the contraction?”

Though the world seems to exist in an uncertain limbo, the observations of these PSTC faculty associates highlight the immense value of scholarship and research.

The PSTC has released a special call for seed fund award proposals for projects related to COVID-19. It is open to regular Brown faculty and has a rolling deadline until April 30.