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Infectious diseases are another unrecognised cost of high population

By Eric Claus - posted Thursday, 26 March 2020

The metropolitan area of Wuhan has 19 million people. The urban area of Wuhan has 11 million people living in a 1528 square kilometre area. The population density of 7250 people per square kilometre is 17 times higher than Sydney's 423 people per square kilometre. Many people think Sydney is crowded and congested, but our political leaders have us headed in the direction of Wuhan. Imagine a city 17 times as crowded and congested as Sydney and you've got the starting place for a pandemic.

The way we combat the coronavirus is through social distancing. There is no social distancing in Wuhan. Everybody lives on top of each other

The SARS virus outbreak started in Guangdong province in China. The population density in Guangdong province is 22 times higher than our most densely populated state Victoria. The whole province (111 million people) is more densely populated than Metropolitan Sydney.


After severe crowding, a second reason that the risk of infectious diseases is increased with increased population is that the living space of the increasing population is encroaching into the living space of wild animals that carry these viruses. There used to be buffer zones between where the wild animals lived and where humans lived, but there isn't enough space for that anymore. With world population forecast to increase from the current 7.8 billion to 9.2 billion in 2040, it is likely that the buffer zones will continue to disappear.

Proponents of high population growth never take responsibility for issues like the spread of infectious diseases. They just say that is a bit of bad luck. Nothing to do with us.

Proponents of high population growth like the Business Council of Australia (BCA) say that increased population is "Good for the economy," what they really mean it is good for their economy, not yours and mine. They like increased population because they get the increased profits from selling to more people and increased profits from reduction in wages. When it comes to providing the infrastructure that is needed to provide government services like roads, trainlines, hospitals and schools that the extra people need, the BCA says we should all help pay.

When there is more pollution from higher population density we all pay through higher government fees and taxes, as well as through poorer health. Property developers and retailers made big profits from higher population. The average worker's wages have been flat the past 20 years, while corporate profits have boomed.

When proponents of high population say that increased population is "Good for the Economy" they conveniently ignore factors like crowded roads, crowded hospitals, parks, schools and beaches. Travel times have increased by up to 60% in Sydney, but that doesn't go into the "economy," it just inconveniences the people who don't benefit from high population. When there is more congestion, we all pay for that, but we didn't get the profits of the higher population.

One of the ways that pro population growth organisations have avoided scrutiny on the extra costs that they impose on the average citizen is that the extra costs are so difficult to clearly define. When Kevin Rudd said, in effect, "We avoided a recession because our population grew due to high immigration." He refers to the relatively clear figures produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. When environmentalists refer to the depletion of ecosystems services such as buffer zones for bushfires and infectious diseases, erosion control, flood prevention, greenhouse gas sinks, and pollination; there are no clear numbers. Many academics have tried to define the value of ecosystem services (Costanza, et al estimate $125 trillion per year , $16,000 for every person on the planet), but it is fair to say that their efforts are not considered as concrete as the GDP numbers from the Bureau of Statistics. Without hard numbers to latch on to, the value of ecosystem services tends to drop out of the debate and the value becomes essentially zero. It is clear the value is not zero, but without hard numbers like the ABS numbers, there is less interest by the public, less impact in the media and less political action.


A second problem with discussing costs, is that high population growth isn't the sole responsible factor in ecosystem depletion. Since other factors also contribute, the debate gets confusing, difficult to report on in the media and there is less political action as a result. Of course, population growth isn't the only factor in growth in the GDP, either, but that doesn't stop proponents saying we need high population growth to grow the economy.

The most significant impediment to political action on population stabilisation is that the benefits of reduced population won't be felt for many years after the election cycle, but a reduction in immigration will reduce GDP during the current election cycle. It will take brave politicians, willing to trust a more long-term focussed electorate, to fight against the big money pro-population growth forces.

There is some chance that the coronavirus events may start to change the current short-term focus of the electorate, because the negatives of the coronavirus are all too plain to see. Talk about recession and lock downs all over the world, tend to focus the mind. There are almost as many stories about the negative economic impacts of the coronavirus as about the negative health impacts. When voters start thinking about what we could do to keep this horrible situation from happening again, they might start thinking of population stabilisation. When we start talking about the trillions of dollars lost to the coronavirus, the cost of bush fires, congestion, pollution and ecosystem services becomes easier to add in.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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