'Where's Wally'?

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

Crowds, Pathogens and Overpopulation

“When there is noise and crowds, there is trouble; When everything is silent and perfect, There is just perfection and nothing To fill the air."

- Dejan Stojanovic

It is certainly easier to find a needle in a haystack than it is to meet someone who has never had a hard time looking for Wally. Indeed, I remember in my childhood, spending hours on end looking for that cosmopolitan and scrawny little figure, but cursing the old gods and the new, for making that chore so arduous.

"Why would Wally choose to go into places with so many people?" I would desperately interrogate my parents. For all one knows, it could have been his choice to spend the last few decades mingling with those hordes of anonymous faces, although it is more likely that he had no choice altogether.

Recently, I've found one book of Where's Wally and decided to flip it through. After that initial feeling of reminiscence had dissipated, I started to notice a pattern. Every single illustration was bursting at the seams with humans. Could it be that my mind, already conditioned to pick up scenes of crowdedness - was seeing what it wanted to see? Or could it be that Martin Handford (Wally's illustrator), has perhaps been trying to warn us about overpopulation all along?

Regardless of Handford's intentions, anyone who looks at his work is hard-pressed not to find a suggestive hint of too many people in one location. Personally, I have begun to find the artwork somewhat disconcerting. Something about a scenario thouroughly dominated by a single species. Although it doesn't end there.

The discernible congestion, acting as the facilitator for transmissible diseases that gorge on the availability of human hosts, is all too disquieting. This at a time of forced quarantines and self-isolation due to the rapid spread of Covid-19. When we look at such renderings of reality, one can't help but wonder if these unchecked expansions of population density aren't just playing right into the pathogen's - microscopic - 'hands'.

As Covid-19 takes advantage of a globalized, interconnected and full world, I also took the opportunity to share some thoughts with a colleague from Singapore. We briefly discussed the - possible - role of human overpopulation in enhancing the transmissibility of the disease.

Of course, epidemics were among the initial "positive checks" postulated by Malthus (1798) that lead to a shorter lifespan, and since then, the link between population density and the severity of the impact of a given pathogen has been well substantiated (Langerlöf, 2003; Hu, Nigmatulina & Eckhoff, 2013; Sommerfeld, 2003; Diamond, 1998). As Dr. Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist affirms in Scientific American (2013):

"There's a strong correlation between the risk of pandemic and human population density. We've done the math and we've proved it."

As we exchanged virtual words, we touched on the lack of publicity that human density - hence overpopulation - was receiving by the official public health bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). Despite their invaluable work during this crisis, the association between the growth of the human population and the transmissibility of infectious diseases isn't being made any clearer with the media and the general public.

Naturally, at a time like this, the priority is in putting out the many epidemiological fires arising throughout the world and attempting to prevent many others from emerging, therefore, one might argue that emphasizing the role of overpopulation amidst a public health emergency won't get us anywhere, since the harm (7.7 billion humans in March 2020) has already been done. Obviously, there is some truth in such reasoning, and even if it is just an intellectual exercise at this point, we should still conduct that experiment.

At a time like this, those of us in the overpopulation sphere are compeled to accentuate the role that a bloated human population has in aggravating the spread of infectious diseases, as it is the case of professor of agriculture and environmental sciences, Ambt Anoruo, who writes in How does population size affect a pandemic and social distancing? (2020):

"Scientists and scholars have demonstrated with nonhuman organisms that every space has a limit to its carrying capacity to support a species or organism but [they] are still divided if this concept is applied to humans. This brings me to the coronavirus issue, its transmission and spread among humans and how quickly it became a pandemic.
Imagine that when the population was about 4 billion in 1975, nobody outside China, the origin of the disease, could have heard about coronavirus because natural social distancing could have stopped the disease. Even if the virus escaped China, it could have run into natural distancing due to human population density per unit of land."

This much is true. If less people are inhabiting a certain place, that makes it harder to form new chains of transmission as well as maintaining them active (e.g. by having less instances of mass gatherings) (Tam et al. 2012). Nevertheless, we should resist the temptation of condensing the blame around population density, as other factors appear, in this early stage of the pandemic at least, to counter the adverse effects of human crowdedness.

For instance, a country like Singapore is at the top of the chart (third highest) regarding population density, with roughly 8,109 individuals per square kilometer (World Population Review, 2020), and despite being relatively close to the origin of the disease, meaning that contagion began in January (Duddu, 2020), it reports 385 total infections. The 18th of March witnessed a spike in cases, the highest number of daily cases since the disease has been tracked, with the majority being imported (Min, 2020).

On the other hand, Portugal has a population density of 111/km2 (101th place on the chart); infections were detected much later, (26th of February), and as of the 2nd of April, 9,034 cases have been reported (DGS, 2020; Silva, 2020), with an exponential curve resembling population growth during the 20th century (images below).

Contrary to Singapore, Portugal is still in the early stages of the propagation of the disease, mirroring a scene observed throughout Europe, leading WHO to declare the continent as the new epicenter of COVID-19 (CIDRAP, 2020). Additionally, more than a third of reported cases in Singapore have recovered and they have two fatalities, while Portugal has 64 recoveries and already 209 deaths (Bing, 2020).

Evidently, population density isn't the only factor to take into account in this epidemiological analysis, although it can be a strong predictor. Nonetheless, it is still intellectually captivating to ponder on such a downright contrast between the two countries (or others such as Hong Kong or Macau, which are also in the top 5 most densely populated) (World Population Review, 2020; Bing, 2020).

For one thing, there is an abysmal variation in sociological behavior between the West and the East. Indeed, as the WHO elevated COVID-19 to a pandemic status on the 11th of March, the Portuguese population flocked to the beaches with a sudden rise in temperature. They ignored the advice of the government and the public health administration to remain in quarantine and maintain social distancing (Lopes, 2020). Universities and schools had initiated lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus two days before, instructing students to remain indoors, however, as one can testify, these warnings were virtually ignored.