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Six degrees of coronavirus: the math behind why COVID-19 is hitting elites so hard

Of the relatively small number of cases of COVID-19 so far, a striking number have hit elites.

In government, members of parliament from the UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Romania, and Australia, plus a whopping 24 Iranian MPs, as well as the British health minister, several Iranian cabinet ministers, the Mayor of Miami, the communications director for Brazil’s president, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife. In entertainment: Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, two NBA basketball players, eighteen professional soccer players. And perhaps most elite of all, in titular terms, the current head of the House of Habsburg, Karl von Habsburg.

In all, that’s at least 67 certifiably elite people who’ve fallen ill, far more than their proportional number around the globe. And that’s not even counting the many elites who are either quarantined or are ill-advisedly refusing to quarantine themselves. The media is currently engaged in a frenzied speculation about whether one of the world’s most known people, the President of the United States, will come down with COVID-19 or escape many close brushes with it unscathed.

Why are elites being hit so hard? Like most things about the COVID-19, it all comes down to math.

Elites travel and network

I’m not elite, but I do travel a lot in my work on global health issues. If not for the coronavirus, the next couple of months would have seen me flying to Portland, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Heidelberg, London, Sydney, and Tel Aviv. The world’s elites travel like this all the time, or if they don’t, others travel to see them. They meet with large numbers of people, and with others who also travel everywhere.

Consider the statistics around air travel. While half of Americans don’t fly at all in any given year, the 20% of US employees who fly for work do so on average five times a year. And hundreds of thousands of people fly so regularly that they have flown a million miles on a single carrier. The people who do are sampling the world much more thoroughly than the average person, and have more opportunity to pick up the virus. They’re interacting with other people who also do this.

And elite people hold meetings that bring together huge numbers of elites from all over the world, routinely. They jet from board meetings to galas to summits to conferences to cabinet meetings to legislative hearings to parades, and back again.

Elites are fighting graph theory

Imagine a network of all the humans in the world, a network whose edges connect each person to all the people they’ve interacted with in person within the last week.  This is known as a contact network, and epidemics spread along the edges of this network.  Social distancing and other isolation networks are efforts to trim lots of edges off these networks, making it harder for SARS-CoV-2 to spread.

More: Even if you can’t go full lockdown right now, you can still #FlattenTheCurve

Elites occupy a very special place in this network:

  • They have a lot of connections.
  • Their connections reach people in many different parts of the world.
  • Their connections are disproportionately also people who have these properties.

For these reasons, as the virus propagates along this network of people, it will tend, mathematically, to find its way into elite circles and propagate within them much more often than it will hit random people with fewer, less distributed, and less elite connections.

In show business, this concept is the basis of the game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” after the actor who famously costarred with many other actors. Mathematicians keep careful track of the Erdos numbers. But this property of centrality, and elite people displaying it, is considered an invariant property of human contact networks. It is effectively inherent to what makes people elite, and it inherently puts them at greater risk. The same pattern was seen in the deadly second wave of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Similarly, global cities with a lot of links to the rest of the world seem to be at more risk of being ahead of the curve.  In the United States, the worst epidemics are hitting connected cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Boston.  The first world is catching more cases than the third.  Urban areas are catching more cases than rural.

Insular communities and COVID-19

People in insular communities have many of the same properties.  While they don’t have particularly elite or distributed connections in most cases, they have large numbers of connections that are “dense” within their local subnetworks.  For this reason, the COVID-19 epidemic, when it reaches them, tends to spread very rapidly within them, and hit them particularly hard.

Two examples of this are the Shincheonji Church of Jesus Christian sect in South Korea, which is one of the largest and densest clusters of COVID-19 in South Korea, and the orthodox Jewish community in New Rochelle, New York.

This type of group, like elites, tends to be vulnerable not because of their values or hygienic practices, which are mostly the same as everyone else, but because of network math.

The danger to elites is here to stay

Because elite vulnerability to COVID-19 results from mathematical properties of contact networks itself rather than any specific factors that can be easily changed, it will likely be with us for the entire epidemic.

In the case of elites in the medical and government fields, threats to their health may have effects on efforts to fight the epidemic, as e.g. presumably Iran would be better off it its deputy health minister were on the job instead of in a hospital.

So expect to see this pattern recur, and its effects matter, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the globe. And if you are elite, even modestly so, consider this reason to be extra worried.