News2020.05.05 08:00

Low population density is a blessing for Baltic states during Covid-19 pandemic – analysis

The Baltic states seem to have coped with the coronavirus pandemic better than some of their better-resourced fellow EU member-states. Lower population density may be a factor in their success, writes Fransua Vytautas Razvadauskas of Euromonitor International.

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Just about every country has been affected by the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) which has infected more than 3 million people and laid claim to over 200,000 lives worldwide, at the time of writing.

Its spread has been particularly colossal in cities – from Madrid to New York to Wuhan, the urban centres we usually associate with tourism, commerce and business have become victims of the global pandemic.

The Baltic states have not been immune to the pandemic either. However, the spread of the coronavirus in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia has been slower than in some other European countries, not least because of relatively low population densities.

Population density affects Covid-19 spread and mortality

It makes theoretical sense to assume that high population density, measured in the number of people residing in a square kilometre of land, would be a causal factor in the spread of the virus.

Tight communities of a large number of people using public transport and visiting the same shops are perfect breeding grounds for infectious diseases.

A study inspired by Jed Kolko used US data released by the New York Times to suggest that highly dense and large metropolitan areas are more likely to report higher Covid-19 death rates.

The conclusion is supported by Joacim Rocklöv and Henrik Sjödin, who analysed the rate of Covid-19 infections aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama. They suggested that a highly dense setting made it harder to practise social distancing, which led to the rapid transmission of the virus.

The Baltic states are some of the least densely populated countries in the EU, behind only Sweden and Finland. They have also reported relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases. At the time of writing, Lithuania, for example, recorded just 500 coronavirus cases per million, much fewer than some Western European countries such as Spain, Italy and France with rates 5 to 9 times higher, according to the reference website for statistics, Worldometer.

Population density is closely linked to urbanisation, which has grown rapidly over the last few decades. In 1980, only 39 percent of the world’s population lived in cities, but the share has surged to 56 percent in 2019 and is expected to reach 60 percent by 2030.

In 2019, the share of the Baltic population living in urban areas was 67–68 percent – far off the EU average of 76 percent. While living in dense cities has its benefits in fostering economies of scale and offering better access to public services, lower levels of urbanisation may have been a blessing in disguise for the Baltic countries by slowing down the spread of Covid-19.

Lots of testing, but healthcare needs better funding

Rates of testing for Covid-19 have varied across the world and have been generally higher in more affluent countries.

While the Baltic states enjoy lower gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than Western European countries, they have been among the more active EU member states in terms of testing their populations. Estonia and Lithuania have been reporting testing rates of 30,855 and 25,893 per million, respectively, and, at the time of writing, were among the top 5 in the EU.

Lessons for the future

The Baltic states seem to have Covid-19 under control, barring any new bouts of infection. Low population densities coupled with swift action to halt flights from virus epicentres and the implementation of strict quarantine measures have been instrumental in flattening the curve and avoiding the situation spiraling out of control.

However, governments should not view this pandemic as a one-off event and instead learn from the experience. Once the current epidemic subsides, governments must draw up formal standard operating procedures (SOPs) to prepare an organised response in the future.

South Korea used the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic as a springboard to implement SOPs to be better prepared for any future outbreaks and this has enabled the country to lead one of the most successful efforts against Covid-19.

Some observers have suggested that a second wave of the coronavirus might be even more deadly, just like the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918. This is an opportunity for the Baltic states to shore up their healthcare systems and draw up more efficient government response procedures to minimise the human and economic costs of future pandemics.

Fransua Vytautas Razvadauskas is cities consultant at Euromonitor International.

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