University of Mannheim: First the rich, then the poor: Mannheim researchers are tracing the path of the pandemic

There is no doubt that the socially disadvantaged are hit particularly hard by the pandemic. At the beginning of the Corona crisis, however, it looked different. In spring 2020, it was first in the richer regions where the virus spread in Germany. Jana Berkessel, Dr. Tobias Ebert and Prof. Dr. Jochen Gebauer from the Mannheim Center for European Social Research (MZES) at the University of Mannheim, together with other researchers from Denmark and the USA, demonstrated this development – not only for Germany, but also for England and the USA. The fact that they discovered astonishing parallels to the “Spanish flu” around 100 years ago could be significant for the future handling of pandemics.

Berkessel, Ebert and their team have now published the study in the well-received journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science”. Your article describes two studies: For the first study, the scientists analyzed Covid 19 infection numbers from around 400 German, 300 English and 3,000 US regions over time. For the second study, the research team examined historical data on around 6,700 deaths of US citizens during the “Spanish flu” from 1918 to 1919.

Wealthier initially significantly more affected
“The virus initially spread faster in richer areas. But that was soon reversed and poorer areas came into focus, with serious consequences, ”explains Jana Berkessel. For all three countries examined, it can be seen that Covid-19 initially spread more strongly in areas with a higher median income. Tobias Ebert: “After 30 days of the pandemic, areas with higher incomes in the USA and Germany were significantly more affected than less privileged areas. In England it was similar, but less pronounced. “

Slower spread in the poorer areas of Germany
It was only over time that the number of infections rose in the underprivileged regions. While in the USA and England the poorer areas were very soon more affected by Covid-19 than richer areas, this reversal did not occur during the first wave of pandemics in Germany. “Initially, the US did little to counter the spread of the virus. It therefore seems logical that the very dynamic infection process there soon also reached the underprivileged areas, ”said Berkessel. In Germany, on the other hand, the first wave was obviously slowed down early enough before it could jump from richer to underprivileged areas, the research team sums up:

Why the rich first? Networks and mobility are probably decisive
But why does it seem in principle to hit the richer areas first? The psychologists see the reason that wealthier people are often more diverse and generally more mobile. For example, those with a high income tend to be on business or leisure trips more often and have to deal with a relatively large number of different people. “And if a virus is about to spread on a massive scale and social life is not yet restricted, then it is precisely these people with various contacts who have a high probability of being infected and passing on the virus. To put it bluntly: “The mobile elites drag in the virus unintentionally, the poorer then get it off with a delay,” summarizes Ebert.

Lessons for future pandemics The
fact that the path of “Spanish flu” and Covid-19 through the layers of society – first the rich, then the poor – was fundamentally similar, suggests conclusions for the research team for possible future pandemics. “Our findings show that in the important phase at the beginning of a pandemic you have to look carefully at which measures are to be taken to effectively prevent the spread,” explains Jana Berkessel. It seems advisable, for example, to closely monitor the outbreak in the early stages, especially in wealthier regions.

No sham findings due to different population densities or test capacities
Comprehensive additional analyzes suggest that the results are not sham findings that arose due to regionally different factors such as test capacities, urbanity (population density) or tourism capacities. “We checked our findings for such factors. The results are robust according to scientific standards, ”concludes the research team.