Stephen C. Bannister and Hailey Brookins: It’s past time to talk about population and pandemics

As cities take over wild spaces, diseases are more likely to jump to humans.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) New home construction in Saratoga Springs on Dec. 3. Utah’s population swelled by an estimated 52,820 people — equivalent to adding a city the size of Herriman — during the fiscal year that ended July 1, 2020, as a years-long economic boom ended and the pandemic and its recession began.

Utah has long had one of the fastest growing populations in the country — and we have also had one of the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 during much of the past year. These two facts are largely unrelated (as myriad factors drive virus transmission in any particular area), but it is nonetheless worth thinking about the very real connections between population growth and the pandemic.

Although our state’s population growth rate is slowing, it still stands at around 1.3% annually. We know that this unceasing demographic expansion promises more strain on our natural resources, more people in our already crowded campgrounds and canyons — especially on powder days! — and even worse droughts. Unceasing population growth in Utah will also nullify the hard-won improvements in air quality we are making through a cleaner energy mix.

Less known is that ample evidence suggests that, globally, the COVID-19 pandemic was in part both caused by and exacerbated by population growth.

As global population swells toward 10 billion plus (from 7.5 billion today), humans expand into previously undeveloped areas, putting new pressure on the world’s wildlife. Several of the recent disease outbreaks, including Ebola, Zika virus, SARS and the West Nile virus, originated from human interactions with animals.

As Ed Young of The Atlantic put it, “Humanity has squeezed the world’s wildlife in a crushing grip — and viruses have come bursting out.”

Rising population strains available space for humans and wildlife alike, and the inevitable loser is the natural environment. As humans continue to spread into former natural areas for intensive agriculture and cities, more species go extinct, but contact between people and wildlife increases. These forced interactions can introduce novel diseases, a process that will only increase as the global population rises toward 11 billion.

Population growth not only contributed to the original outbreak of the pandemic but also drove its severity. COVID-19 spreads quickly through densely populated areas, so it is not surprising that many hot spots have been giant cities like Wuhan, New York and São Paulo.

The virus spreads via droplets between people in close contact with one another, and of course large cities squeeze a lot of people very close together. Today the globe has 28 megacities — those with populations over 10 million — and experts predict 41 such cities by 2040, a trend that obviously does not bode well for future pandemics.

Some voices worry that flattened population growth curves will depress the economy. Actually, however, the relationship between population growth and per capita economic growth is vague at best; innovation drives modern economies, not the sheer body count. Japan’s population, for example, has actually started to shrink, but its per-capita wealth continues to grow.

Around the world, unceasing population growth promises more pandemics. Addressing the failures of public health infrastructure is an important step to preventing future pandemics, but so is talking about the consequences of population growth.

While population projections are disheartening, we can take steps to prevent future pandemics. Rather than avoiding discussions about population growth, we should embrace them. These conversations can be uncomfortable, but promoting sustainable population growth may be key to preventing the spread of future pandemics.

Stephen C. Bannister, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Economics University of Utah

Stephen C. Bannister, Ph.D., is an associate professor of economics at the University of Utah.

Hailey Brookins

Hailey Brookins is a senior in environmental studies at Westminster College.