Countries with disaster experience saw fewer human casualties during COVID-19

June 1, 2021
Lines of cars wait at a coronavirus testing site. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Lines of cars wait at a coronavirus testing site. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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COVID-19 had a smaller impact in terms of human lives lost in countries with past experience facing epidemics and natural disasters, but the data isn't as clear when it comes to how these countries fared on the economic front, according to new research.

For a study published May 12 in Economic Letters, researchers investigated whether countries that have societal experience — what they dub "societal awareness" — with epidemics, disasters and other catastrophic events fared better in terms of human mortality and economic distress. Many had argued, with anecdotal evidence, that previously affected countries were in fact faring better, but this was without any academic evidence or hard facts, according to Alejandro Buesa, a co-author of the paper and staff economist at the Bank of Spain.

While the pandemic came as a surprise to many individuals and nations around the globe, Buesa and his colleagues point out that the scientific community had been warning for about a decade that a novel, epidemic-inducing pathogen was likely to appear; additionally, there were many countries and regions that had experience with these sorts of events, such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. So, while the COVID-19 pandemic came as a surprise to some, others were prepared to face it — but a question remained on whether "aware" countries actually had better outcomes than less "aware" countries. 

Buesa and his colleagues from the Bank of Spain used a regression model with a sample of 159 countries around the world to examine this link between societal awareness and human and economic outcomes vis-à-vis COVID-19. 

Catastrophic events could include epidemics, radiological disasters and natural disasters such as floods and tsunamis; researchers obtained data about these events from the Emergency Events Database constructed by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. Data on human casualties due to COVID-19 came from the the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, and data on economic distress, measured by GDP losses throughout 2020, came from the International Monetary Fund.

They combined this information with population statistics from the World Bank, controlling for population and urbanization. The researchers also controlled for factors such as national income per capita and the robustness of countries' health systems. 

The researchers measured human casualties and economic distress at one month and three months after the pandemic started in each country, and then they monitored the countries regularly throughout the rest of 2020. 

The researchers found a strong and robust relationship between countries with past epidemics and human casualties. In other words, countries with more exposure to and higher numbers of past epidemics and disasters were linked to fewer deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Determining the economic effects of the pandemic, however, was more challenging. While at first the most basic regressions for the initial impact and the overall output loss in 2020 showed a positive and statistically significant coefficient in the data, the inclusion of additional, plausible control variables dissipated the findings, which the researchers said is evidence of a lack of robustness in the data. 

"We can absolutely confirm with what we have that the human incidence is inversely proportional to the experience with pandemics, but for the economic effects, the evidence is not that clear," Buesa said. "So, the economic part [of the paper] is more exploratory, sort of setting a pathway for people to look into it and for people to investigate more, rather than setting a strong result."

As for the health consequences of pandemics generally, Buesa said these findings indicate the need for robust health systems and strong policy responses to pandemics, and these responses shouldn't only be contained within the borders of sovereign nations. Responses to pandemics should also happen on an international scale when countries are intertwined and faced with the same threats, be they epidemics or other natural disasters, according to Buesa. 

Additionally, an important piece of this research is the "awareness" factor — the finding that countries with more pandemic awareness fared better than those without it. And the importance of disaster and pandemic awareness doesn't only impact policy and the lawmakers who take charge and make decisions as catastrophes arise; awareness also impacts the citizens of each country who live through these catastrophes. 

"Individual awareness is quite important for the pandemic to spread more slowly," Buesa said. "Because in terms of pandemics ... being more aware makes you more cautious. And hence, the pandemic will have a lower transmission or will transmit with lower speed."

The study "Awareness of pandemics and the impact of COVID-19," published May 12 in Economic Letters, was co-authored by Alejandro Buesa, Banco de España and Universidad Complutense de Madrid; Javier J. Pérez and Daniel Santabárbara, Banco de España.