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Could Mayo’s sparsely populated county be a weapon in our fight against Covid-19?


Edwin McGreal

Could the sparsely populated nature of Mayo work to the county’s advantage in tackling Covid-19?
There’s a strong possibility it might, according to a leading economist – once people in the county adhere to measures like social distancing to contain its spread.
Analysis of figures around the world demonstrate that areas of higher population density are more susceptible to community transmissions of Covid-19 than more sparsely populated areas.
Murrisk-based Dr John Bradley’s background is in economic modelling and the long-term impact of structural funds. For many years he was a research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in Dublin.
In his career, he has studied structural funding and its impact on population density closely. Mayo, behind Leitrim, has the second lowest population density in the country with only 23 people per square kilometre compared to 1,459 in Dublin county. This will be a factor, Dr Bradley states.
However, he is keen to add that will only be the case if ‘our current adherence to social distancing and other required behaviours be maintained and deepened’.
“If everyone is complying and I think they are, then counties like Mayo are at an advantage. Population density matters and it is worth saying this, it is a fact of life.
“The fact that Mayo has a low population density and contains no large metropolitan centres, means that the mechanisms of community transmission and of other forms of transmission of Covid-19 are likely to be considerably weaker than in a densely populated urban centre like Dublin and, I suspect, in the densely populated urban parts of counties Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford,” Dr Bradley told The Mayo News.
Though the pandemic is still at an early stage in Ireland compared to its rapid progress in Italy, Spain and France, Dr Bradley contends that the Irish county by county breakdowns are already demonstrating how population density is a factor.
For instance, Dr Bradley has crunched the numbers and calculated that the county by county breakdowns show that you are potentially almost eight times more vulnerable in Dublin than in Mayo. This calculation is based on figures released by the HSE on Sunday last.
No precise figure was given for some counties, with the figures saying only that Mayo had five or less confirmed cases. Precise county figures are given where there are six or more cases in any county. Dr Bradley’s calculations for Mayo are based on the higher number – five cases. Were the Mayo figure less than five, that would deepen the gulf with Dublin, expressed in terms of cases per head of population.

International research
While Covid-19 is a new disease, there has been a large volume of research already undertaken on factors that will facilitate the spread of the disease. Whilst people coming in from affected areas and close contacts with them are causes of concern, the greatest concern centres around what are known as ‘community transmissions’, cases where the virus has passed internally through a community rather than because of inward travel.
Figures released at the weekend showed that the greatest proportion of cases in Ireland are now community transmissions, at 42 percent. Travel from abroad accounts for 35 percent and close contact to confirmed cases accounts for 23 percent.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said Covid-19 can cause ‘nationally incapacitating epidemics’ within weeks or even days ‘once transmission within the community is established’.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA has determined a community’s size and its population density as key factors to consider for determining mitigation strategies.
Further research by the CDC in the Gansu Province in China showed that ‘hot spots’ of Covid-19 were not random but ‘mainly restricted to the Chengguan District of Lanzhou, the most densely populated and most developed area’.
Lombardy, the epicentre of Covid-19 in Italy with over 3000 deaths, is the country’s most densely populated region, with one sixth of Italians living there.
A state by state breakdown of cases in German regions also indicates a strong link between per head incidences and population density.
The most densely populated state, Berlin, has a Covid-19 incidence per million of 237.6. The state with the lowest population density, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, has, by comparison, a Covid-19 incidence per million of less than half that, 102.5.
‘Common sense and standard science’
Dr Bradley’s calculations for the Irish counties have, therefore, considerable merit when one looks at global links between population density and the spread of such diseases.
“This regional pattern of Covid-19 incidence may change as the crisis deepens. But modelling of the spread of a pandemic would strongly suggest that the rates of incidence will be higher in densely populated urban areas,” he says.
“All the modelling carried out will show higher transmission rates in more densely populated urban areas. This is common sense and standard science. It holds even if everyone behaves.
“The question remains as to what to do with these insights? One implication is that while it is crucial to obey all the recommendations on social distancing everywhere, the consequences of not conforming are far more serious in a densely populated city than, say, in Murrisk or Westport. Of course, governments are not going to force Dublin and Cork people to stay locked up at home while people in Mayo can still wander about in their low population density county! Everybody will be told to behave in a uniform way. This is perfectly understandable.”
He also adds that factors like a low dependence on public transport will actually, for once, benefit Mayo right now. If you have to drive to work, as people in Mayo are more likely to do than those in larger urban areas, you will come into close contact with virtually nobody on your commute compared with using public transport, either now or in recent weeks.
“A low population density is typically a huge disadvantage to a region when it comes to boosting economic development and seeking greater infrastructure investment, etc. This is one rare case where a low population density could be an advantage to a county like Mayo,” said Dr Bradley.
“We have small population centres but there’s nothing like the crowding in towns like Castlebar, Ballina and Westport that you would see in Dublin or Cork. As a consequence, the transmission mechanisms are more likely to be dampened here.”
The key, he stresses, remains a vigilant and compliant population throughout Ireland – there is no room for any complacency. He argues that the role played by population density ought to be stressed, not so that people in Mayo can relax but for people in urban areas to exercise even greater caution.
“Everyone has to exercise caution in everything they do, but particularly so in larger urban areas like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.
“It is reassuring that in Westport shopkeepers are insisting on distance between people. It is very reassuring. People are more trusting of our policy makers here than seems to be the case in the UK or the USA, that’s crucial.
“We are a cohesive country. This is also so vital, and contrasts with the fractured nature of UK and US politics where people are not as trusting of their politicians and less likely to comply with directions coming from their leaders,” he said.