Covid 19: A Malthusian Argument for South Asia – By Ian Inkster

Charitable Organizations distribute relief material to the migrant workers. After nearly 70 days of complete lockdown India prepares to open up in phases. (Image courtesy : Ramakrishna Math

Ian Inkster, SOAS, University of London.(Views are personal)

The four largest nations of South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan) represent 24% of the world’s population, but only 6% of world Covid 19 cases, and 2.4% of world mortality attributed to the virus. This suggests a presently low-level attack by the virus, one that might be explained mostly by the late development of Covid 19 in South Asia.

Here, we do not challenge this observation as such, but add to it an analysis that would lead to a continuation of the region’s present advantage until the pandemic is over. The argument may well apply also to the rest of Asia and to the global south generally.

When Thomas Malthus (1766-1843), educated at Warrington Dissenting Academy, a church curate who became one of the most famous of all political economists, developed his great thesis on population, he laid down simply that population increases in geometrical proportion but that the ‘means of subsistence’ (particularly food) increased only arithmetically. So, in his great book of 1798, Essay on Population, any developing economy would soon run into a problem of scarcity and starvation as population inevitably outgrew incomes. Often seen as a thesis of doom and gloom it has also been said to have been misleading, although the postulated relationship did hold back development in ‘third world’ nations for most of the 20th century, and was only overcome in China by Mao’s drastic legislation limiting families to one child under most circumstances.

But, of course, the logic was fine, it was world history that showed how a nation could continue to grow and outrun population by sophisticated industrial transformations that destroyed Malthusian assumptions concerning the arithmetical character of income and output growth. In fact, today the idea is modified to insert the ‘environment’ as the effective global ceiling on indefinite growth.

Of more interest here, other political economists of the 20th century showed that as nations grew in wealth, they also changed their habits. The mass of people on higher incomes began to have less children as they chose better life-styles and needed less children for any work or income they might obtain from them. In rich nations families got smaller, the proportion of children in the population declined and the proportion of older people rose as better incomes, medicines and easier work extended life expectancy. Poorer nations remained nearer the Malthusian assumptions of many children and few older people. As we shall see below, this thesis of a ‘demographic transition’ – substituting for Malthus’s own demographic crisis and decline – is now a major proposition for all analysts, and is fleshed out by evidence in every direction.

Here we are interested in the implications of the demographic transition for South Asia as the Covid 19 virus continues its treacherous attacks. To do this we need to accept that the virus appears to leave children up to at least adolescence untouched, except in extraordinary circumstances usually associated with immune deficiencies. Secondly, it runs amuck amongst 15-60 -year olds but rarely kills (again this mostly depends on their having immune deficiencies). However, amongst the older population it readily moves from being a severe infection to becoming a fatal malady.

How does this work in South Asia presently? The average mortality rate from Covid in the whole of the global south is 3.4% compared to a world level of 5.8% and a level of 7.3% for the rich nations of Europe and North America. As predicted then, even though richer nations have massive resources with which to fight the virus, they suffer much more than the poor nations of the south because the latter have not reached a demographic transition, they have large youthful populations and small elder populations. The first group do not get the virus at all so keeping down infection rates, and the second group is small so dampening down mortality rates.

South Asia suffers low incomes even in comparison to the rest of the global south. The nation of highest Income is India, with a purchasing power parity (the World Bank’s measure of effective per capita income) of US$ 7.7 (thousand) dollars compared to the world average of 17.9. More interestingly, the effective incomes of the world’s three nations of highest Covid attack are 62.8 for the USA, 46.0 for the UK, and 41.8 for Italy. That is, the three nations of highest Covid infection and mortality (5.7, 14.2, and 14.4 respectively) have effective incomes around 20 times that of India, which has a mortality rate of 2.8%. South Asia’s poorest nation is Afghanistan with an effective income level of 1.9, around, one-eightieth that of the three nations of highest attack, but it has a mortality rate of only 1.7% at present.

These figures are overwhelming, but they become more effective when we measure the age differences between nations. Quite simply, Afghanistan with its very low Covid mortality rate (1.7%) has an enormous 43.2% of its population in the age range 0-14, and only 2.6% of its population over 65 years of age. South Asia as a whole, with its mortality rate of only 2.4% overall has 33% of its entire population of 1,803 million in the 0-14 age range and 5.1% aged over 65. This seems to be powerful evidence for the possibility of a Malthusian mechanism at work. It is reducing infection rates (the high number of children) and reducing mortality rates still more (the small number of older people).

Furthermore, this effect can be seen in South East Asia also. Taking the four nations of greatest Covid infection (Indonesia, Malaysia, Phliippines ad Thailand), a population of 484 million has yet suffered only 60,548 cases and a mortality rate of 4.8%. Incomes are higher than in South Asia, but still only averaging around $US 15,000, perhaps less than 10% of the high-Covid rich group of nations. Malaysia is the highest income nation with a mortality rate of 1.4% and a proportion of 0-14 year old youngsters to total population of 24.3% and only 6.3% in the group over 65 years of age. The Philippines, the lowest income nation in the group with a mortality rate of 4.8%, has population proportions for the 0-14 age group of 31.7, and for those over 65 of 4.8%. So, the Malthusian effects seem to hold very generally.

In conclusion, there is evidence for a case to be made that in South Asia although the worst of Covid has yet to come, demographic forces might mean that the final number of Covid cases will be smaller in terms of population, whilst the mortality rate will be more significantly below that reached in the richer nations of our world. This probably applies more generally to the global south. If so, the major mechanism at work is that associated with the notion of a ‘demographic transition’. The income advantages of the richer nations might be dampened by the demography of the poorer nations with their high proportion of youngsters and low proportion of older people.

Whether this seeming advantage can become truly effective over time will depend also on such elements as effective public policy and popular responses to such policies, as well as factors that might increase connectivity with the rest of the world as well as those that impinge on the environment such as levels of air pollution, ability to protect border regions, and climatic and other physical processes.

(Views are personal)

Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist who has taught and researched at universities in Britain, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. Author of 13 books on Asian and global dynamics with particular focus on industrial and technological development, and the editor of History of Technology since 2000. Forthcoming books are Distraction Capitalism: The World Since 1971, and Invasive Technology and Indigenous Frontiers. Case Studies of Accelerated Change in History with David Pretel. Twitter: @inksterian.


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