In his 1798 essay on the principles of population, British economist Thomas Malthus argued that a given population, left unchecked, will outgrow its resources.
Disease and famine are natural checks to overpopulation, wrote Malthus, but a population can avoid catastrophe by utilizing birth control (delaying marriage, per Malthus…) and avoiding helping the poor.
While Malthus’s uncompromising views were unpopular (to say the least), we can see proof of them today with the coronavirus. COVID-19 started in China, which for years has struggled to curb population growth. From Malthus’s perspective, the coronavirus is a natural solution to the problem.
I know this sounds a bit dystopian, but take a look at some recent headlines:
- Coronavirus death toll passes 4,000 worldwide (CNN)
- New York creates ‘containment area’ around cluster in New Rochelle (NPR)
- Italy announces 168 dead in last 24 hours (ABC)
- Iran records highest single toll from coronavirus (Aljazeera)
- CDC: Older folks should stock up on food, stay home amid coronavirus (BI)
Weeks ago, the CDC warned residents in the US to prepare for ‘major changes’ to everyday life. Governors of major states are declaring states of emergency to prepare for an expected outbreak. At least three countries, including the US, have slashed interest rates to convince consumers to keep spending money.
According to live updates, there have been roughly 118,347 cases of COVID-19 and 4,267 deaths. Actual totals are likely far higher due to underreporting in China and a lack of testing in the US.
On Tuesday, Walmart implemented an emergency employee leave program after an associate in Kentucky tested positive for the coronavirus.
As Malthus noted in his essay, those most at risk during a catastrophe are individuals in the lowest tiers of society. In this case, authorities are concerned about prison populations.
Iran decided to release more than 50,000 inmates from its prisons after the coronavirus swept through several facilities in China. The United States, which has more prisoners per capita than any other country, has not announced any major moves to protect this vulnerable population.
The US holds nearly 2.3 million individuals in its thousands of prisons, up to half of which are over-crowded.
In over-crowded facilities, inmates often lack access to soap and are unable to shower for weeks at a time. Hand sanitizer is banned because it contains alcohol.
“Everyone walks to the cafeteria together, walks back through the same hallway, touches the same doorknobs, uses the same showers,” says Dr. Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine who works in the Rhode Island correctional system. “It was pretty clear, as this thing started evolving, that there is person-to-person transmission. It’s also pretty clear that it can spread easily.”
“On top of that, you have all sorts of people who are medically compromised,” adds David Patton, executive director for the nonprofit group Federal Defenders of New York. “There are a number of people with hepatitis, people with a broad spectrum of medical issues that are not dealt with well even in the best of times. And you have older inmates, you have people who are in high-risk categories and who are kept in thoroughly unsanitary conditions.”
And it’s not just the inmates at risk. Think about all the guards, doctors, and other staff that rotate in and out of the community.
“Correctional settings around the nation are often run with tolerance for abuse and neglect of incarcerated people,” writes Dr. Homer Venters, president of Community Orientated Correctional Health Services. “The only path to effective management of COVID-19 in these settings is meaningful partnership that starts now, when plans are being designed, not two months from now when cases are being detected.”
Editor’s Note: Malthus was correct in this theory, however it appears that once you attain a certain level of prosperity, population no longer grows so desperately. This is true throughout the first world, where population growth is low or, in the case of Japan, negative.
There are many theories as to why this is true. Perhaps it is because in the first world children have to be more educated and it is more expensive. Perhaps it is because we are able to effectively use birth control. And of course, we no longer need to depend on our children as our retirement plan, since reliable savings methods and social security allow older people to live independently of their children.
I anticipate that China, still a third world nation, will have tremendous difficulty fighting disease, which its population in such close quarters. The U.S. should have less of a problem since we are spread out more and our health facilities are first rate.