One of Italy’s most endearing attributes may be the reason it was hit so hard by the coronavirus.
The European country has the second-most cases in the world at 27,980 — second only to China — and almost 2,000 deaths so far. Now researchers are learning why.
Italy’s social and multigenerational way of life, in which the young and old live and spend quality time together often, could be why rates of infection and death are so high, according to a new paper published on the Open Science Framework by researchers at the University of Oxford.
The paper says that Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world — 23.3% of people are over age 65 — and in many households, multiple generations live together or close by, and interact often.
“It is becoming clear that the pandemic’s progression and impact may be strongly related to the demographic composition of the population, specifically population age structure,” the researchers write.
The study’s authors suggest that because we know that young people can be infected without showing symptoms and pass it to an older person in poorer health, frequent travel between Italian family members to each other’s homes could have spread the virus further in the country.
All of this makes social distancing even more important, the researchers argue, especially when it comes to intergenerational contact.
In the US, this information means places like Florida and Arizona, where there are a lot of retirees, could be hit particularly hard. In many areas, nursing homes are starting to become off-limits to nonessential visitors.
“Florida is like an uber-Italy,” Andrew Noymer, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine, who wasn’t involved in this research, tells Wired. “Florida is going to be a tough situation, I would predict.”
“It’s not destiny to say Florida is going to be absolutely clobbered by this,” he adds. “There is time with social distancing to flatten the peak. Maybe we can make this the dog that didn’t bark, so to speak.”
Wired notes that an aging population doesn’t guarantee a disaster. Japan used extensive early testing and strict travel controls early and has only reported 814 confirmed cases and 24 deaths, despite 28% of the population being over age 65.