March 26, 2020

Coronavirus severity and foreign-born population: Asia / Africa vs. Europe & colonies

My old co-blogger from Gene Expression, Razib, has good corona-coverage on Twitter, including a retweet of the following puzzle about Tokyo vs. New York:

The major difference is the size of the immigrant population: 4% of Tokyo vs. 40% of New York City. Ten-fold difference.

Then you have to take into account how globally connected their immigrants are: most of the immigrants in Japan are from neighboring South Korea, vs. the immigrants of New York coming more uniformly from all over the world.

Then you have to take into account how globally connected those sending nations are: South Korea itself only has an immigrant population of 3%, vs. a bit more (maybe 5-10%) for each of the sending nations of New York's immigrants.

So, when you go through all the links in the various chains of transmission that end in Japan, you don't get much global integration. When you go through all the links in the various chains of transmission that end in the NYC metro area or the US as a whole, it integrates so much more of the world.

See here for a list of nations that can be sorted by the share of their population that is foreign-born. East Asia, even the developed countries, has a small immigrant population, under 5% of the nation. Ditto for Africa, perhaps a reason why the coronavirus doesn't seem to be destroying them as badly as the Europeans. European developed countries and their off-shoots like the US have much higher immigrant populations -- well over 5%, and more like 15% in the US.

* * *

At least people are now allowed to talk about global interconnectedness as a major factor in the spread of contagious diseases. And closing the borders to foreign travelers is a sensible place to start once a pandemic is under way.

But as I emphasized in a recent review post on global integration providing the conditions for pandemics, it's not so much travelers as immigrants who spread disease. Travelers are inside a host country for a brief time, and within a narrow spatial range -- the tourist traps. Immigrants are inside a host country indefinitely -- weeks, months, years, decades -- and ranging over a far broader space -- home, work, leisure, etc., all of which could be in different parts of the city.

In between those two extremes would be recurring contacts, like those on a trade route -- not permanently residing in the host country, but not just stopping by briefly on one occasion.

A foreign military could play any degree of this role, depending on how long they're hunkered down in the host country. Just passing through, or a conflict that results in a quick defeat -- they're more like travelers. Occupying the area, laying siege, etc., in a protracted stalemate -- more like immigrants. Visiting every now and then to collect tribute from a defeated group -- more like traders.

The point is that you have to add up the foreigners' influence over time and over space, within the host country. That's why the share of the total population that is foreign-born gives you a better idea of what will happen, than how much international travel and tourism there is into that host country.

Why do elites easily discover the role of foreign travelers, but not the role of foreign residents? Because BEEP BOOP: xenophobia detected, in the case of immigrants. Elites are fine allowing the cheap foreign labor to continue flowing in and remain as residents indefinitely. That props up the elites' standard of living -- less to spend on workers, more to spend on themselves.

But if they had to cut off all travel into their own country by foreigners? Meh, no big deal. The elites would still have plenty of cultural and genetic diversity to experience from the foreign residents. And they don't like tourists, no matter where they come from. And it wouldn't necessarily prevent the elites from traveling outside their country -- just keeping others from traveling into theirs. It wouldn't lower their standard of living or ranking in their status contests, except for those whose wealth and status derives mainly from the tourism sector.

Populists, including those who want the highest state of public health (not just elite well-being), are the opposite -- they'd rather close the border to foreign residents, and open it to foreign travelers, if one had to be open and the other closed.

A closed border to would-be foreign residents also means they could not compete in our labor market and lower the (individual and collective) bargaining power of domestic workers. An open border to foreign travelers has no impact on domestic workers' bargaining power -- some foreigner visiting Times Square for a few days isn't going to take any American citizen's job.

The impact on the housing market is similar. Foreign-born residents add to the demand and drive up the price of housing. Foreign travelers add to the demand for hotel rooms, where they compete with other tourists (perhaps some of whom are citizens here), but not with citizen residents of the area, who live in apartments or houses. Only if tourism got way out of control would it drive up the price of citizens' housing, if apartments were demolished to make room for hotels, shrinking the supply of residential housing.

* * *

Perhaps it's the poisonous influence of identity politics, but it seems like most educated people don't understand that contagious diseases are contagious -- meaning, they can be transmitted from the source country to some other country through any number of intermediate countries. New York residents could be picking up the Chinese Virus from the Chinese themselves, but also from South Koreans, Iranians, or any other non-Chinese nation that the Chinese have had contact with.

(And that's only the chains with 1 intermediate step between China and New York. Go through all chains with more intermediate steps, e.g. China to Italy to Britain to New York.)

The elites appear to be essentializing the pathogen as though it did not just originate in China, but can only be spread by the Chinese, a permanent and unique trait of that population, part of their identity. That goes for right-wing members of the elite, too, who might be fine closing the border to China but not to our cousins in Britain, who are also stricken with the coronavirus.

The elites are not blinded to these disease dynamics when it's interpersonal, though, like STDs. They all know the phrase, "When you sleep with someone, you're sleeping with everyone who they have slept with." (And again, that phrase only captures the chains with just 1 intermediate step.)

Well, it's the same with nations and borders -- when you open your borders to another country, you're opening your borders to every other country that they have opened their own borders to. Only in this national context, the elite brain senses something being said about groups, and potentially having to protect one collective from another collective, and BEEP BOOP: xenophobia detected. ERROR: answer is not a non-racist number.

Any group of people whose minds are contaminated by identity politics will at best have to struggle in order to protect the public health from the usual threats to it, and at worst will actively make the environment worse by delaying action, sending out messages that quarantines don't work, and so on. Unfortunately that includes most educated people in the First World, and they're the ones who are in charge, to the extent that anyone is these days.

So, expect few major lessons to be learned after the damage from this current pandemic has been done. We'll only get major changes where it's needed after the relative strength of the elites vs. the commoners is severely weakened, and we're not going to get to that phase of the cycle for several decades at the earliest.

Right now, the elites continue to be highly over-produced, and they will likely be less decimated by the coronavirus than the commoners will be -- meaning the end-result will be an even more top-heavy society with even more intense intra-elite competition, and even less collective power for the commoners. In that phase, the elites will start to wipe each other out in one way or another, and only after their herds are thinned out can the commoners exert any real influence over society's direction.


  1. Interesting.

    My hesitation with the global integration/immigrant hypothesis is that of the LA/OC metroplis. Between the 2 counties we only account for approx 1,000 confirmed cases in an area with about 13M people and 30-40% immigrant population.

    I think a large part of a region's susceptibility to this virus is its social culture, as well.

  2. NY is twice as dense as LA. The Bos-Wash corridor is denser than the West Coast. No public transportation out West, massive public transportation in the ACELA corridor. There's one upside to Sun Belt suburban sprawl.

    Putting aside these other important factors for triggering epidemics, NY and LA also differ in how globally interconnected their immigrants are.

    In NY, they are fairly uniformly drawn from around the world, integrating a far larger share of the globe. The city, or at least the borough of Queens, is the most diverse in the world.

    In LA, they're still highly diverse compared to other big American cities, but immigrants are more Latin American or East Asian. Not as many come from South / West / Central Asia, or Africa / Afro-Caribbean, or any part of Europe, compared to NY.

    At the next level back, the Latin American immigrants in LA do not come from highly interconnected homelands. Only Brazil is super-diverse, and Brazilians move to NY rather than LA. Almost no one in Mexico is foreign-born, and Mexicans are a big share of LA immigrants. They are only bringing the Mexican disease pool with them -- not also the disease pools of scores of other countries around the world that are connected demographically with Mexico.

    Same thing with East Asian immigrants in LA -- they're not coming from highly connected homelands. They're only bringing in East Asian diseases.

    In NY, the homelands of the immigrant groups are more likely to be heavily connected. All the European immigrants who are still coming in. West Asian. South Asian too -- although India does not have a high percent of foreign-born, it's so diverse internally that it does, de facto. It's diverse genetically, culturally, ecologically.

    To further the point, Singapore also has about 40% immigrant population -- but they're all East Asians like the Singaporeans, and their homelands are themselves low in immigrant populations (e.g. China). And Singapore is doing well in the pandemic. That's because it is not highly globally interconnected.

    The "foreign-born population" metric is crude, but a good initial impression. You have to keep digging further down to see how globally connected the immigrant groups are. And in Singapore, they are not. In NY, they are.

  3. Los Angeles has a large number of Iranian and Armenian immigrants.

  4. Not that many, maybe 2% of the LA metro (300K out of 13 million). South Asians are far more heavily clustered in the NY metro, and broader Bos-Wash corridor. Ditto for West Asians like Arabs (with another cluster in the Great Lakes), as well as Turks.

    Central Asians are also clustered in the Bos-Wash corridor, with the largest group being Uzbeks who live in the NY metro.

    As for Iran specifically, rather than non-East Asians in general, due to the coronavirus outbreak in Iran -- there isn't much travel between here and there. We have no diplomatic relations, you can't carry out financial transactions with them from here, and it's rare for there to be physical visits between the two places.

    So I doubt much of LA's outbreak is due to incoming Iranians, or Iranians who recently traveled there and are returning here.

    LA is mainly Latin Americans and East Asians, not the Muslim belt. The Muslim belt sends its people to Bos-Wash. And again, NY metro absorbs literally every part of the world without a strong bias toward any one sending region.

  5. Will the covid quarantine hurt the Democratic party? It might in the longterm, as the public may end up resenting attempts to corral them. Oddly enough, Trump speaking out against the quarantine has made me seriously consider voting him for in the election. He may only be motivated by his business interests in this regard, but he appears to be more on my side than the political party that wants to put me in lockdown and on food stamps.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."