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Residents in packed cities aren’t more likely to get COVID-19, study says

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Say what you will about New York’s giant rats, Los Angeles’ smog and Chicago’s crime rates, but these crowded cites are not more likely to put residents at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Data from a health app based in Tehran, Iran — an early epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic — have shown that busy cities are relatively safe this pandemic.

Population “density alone cannot be considered a risk factor,” researchers wrote in a new study, published in Sustainable Cities and Society, a peer-reviewed journal focused on architecture and urban planning.

Their findings come with a caveat though. They noted the difference between “high density” and “overcrowding,” with the latter suggesting more hurdles to achieving a safe social distance among residents.

“What drives the spread of infectious disease during a pandemic is overcrowding that operates differently from density and can also occur in districts with a low density,” study authors wrote. “As a result, metropolitan areas and densely populated zones can also be safe during the pandemic, as density alone cannot be considered a risk factor for Covid-19.”

Overcrowding is the real risk during pandemic times -- not the cities themselves.
Overcrowding is the real risk during pandemic times — not the cities themselves.

Researchers at the Universities of Tehran and Isfahan, as well as from Hiroshima University in Japan, retrieved data collected by Iran’s national COVID-19 contact tracing app, AC19.

Tehran has more than 8.6 million residents throughout 22 districts, yet neighborhood density was least of all consequential in terms of COVID-19 distribution. More critical factors included age, wealth and health care access, as well as behavioral variables, such as the likelihood of some residents to follow public health recommendations.

For example, coronavirus mortality rates tended to be higher in communities with a greater proportion of the elderly. Meanwhile, indicators such as higher education level and car ownership pointed to a reduced instance of disease, the study found.

Researchers concede that their report may not reflect a current analysis of the trends due to a lack of fresh data.

The AC19 Android app was withdrawn from Google’s app store late last year over privacy concerns, amid allegations that the Iranian government was collecting location data of millions of citizens, according to a Vice News report. The app of course remained available through Iran’s own app store Cafe Bazaar.

“It is perhaps too early to draw definitive conclusions, so future research should continue to investigate the relationship between urban density and transmission patterns of infectious disease,” said University of Tehran researcher Nabi Moradpour, in a statement attached to the study.

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