Josep Lluís Carrion «Covid-19 is class-blind, but its transmission is not»

Dr. José Luis Carrion-i-Silvestre is the director of the Regional Quantitative Analysis Group (AQR), a research group in the field of applied economics at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Barcelona. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the group has analysed the effects of different local factors on the spread of the virus.

Which knowledge transfer activities does your research group engage in?

At the AQR we work on applied economic analysis. On the one hand we have the most basic and academically oriented research, and on the other the knowledge transfer part, the AQR Lab. Both environments are connected, because our group members work in both. What we do is learn techniques and development processes that we then use for knowledge transfer.

At the AQR Lab we try to conduct analyses that are of interest to institutions such as the Government of Catalonia, the Statistical Institute of Catalonia, city councils, provincial councils, and chambers of commerce. Usually, we focus on the Catalan local and regional contexts, and the nature of our projects is very diverse, as they deal with a wide range of issues such as analysing the state of the labour market and the effect of immigration and wage discrimination, wage, income and educational inequalities, and tourism in Catalonia, among others. We also make projections for entities such as the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce or the Department of Economy of the Government of Catalonia, which sometimes ask us for support in this regard.

What has prompted you to study the effects of different local factors on the spread of Covid-19 in Catalonia?

We noticed that researchers from different fields were trying to quantify the effects of the epidemic and/or monitor it, and so we wondered what we as economists could contribute. After a process of debate and reflection, we decided that it would be possible to apply the type of analysis we perform in economics to quantify the spread of Covid-19. This idea was proposed within the group as a totally altruistic project. Its aim was to combine individual efforts in order to gather statistical information, consult bibliography, process documentation, and move forward in a collaborative manner. We wanted to produce information capsules for the different studies, so that they could be easily disseminated.

Each of us has been working on what we felt was most useful. As we read academic papers dealing with previous epidemics —such as the avian influenza pandemic, the SARS epidemic, and that of the so-called Spanish 1918 flu pandemic— we learned about the the main factors that could make Covid-19 more widespread in a given country or region. We were trying to answer questions like “Who is most affected by Covid-19? What does this depend on?”. We have to assume that the more densely populated a territory is, the more contacts between people there are and, therefore, the more likely transmission is. It must also be concluded that the more public transport available, the more people use it, the more they come into contact with other people, and therefore the more likely it is for the disease to spread. These hypotheses make sense from a non-academic point of view, but then have to be quantified and corroborated with actual data.

How has Covid-19 spread among the different social and/or economic groups of the Catalan population?

This disease is class-blind, but its spread is not. That is to say, obviously, everyone is susceptible to infection, but transmission may depend on social class. People living in a densely populated area, where it is difficult to maintain distance and transmission is easier, are more likely to become infected. If we add to this the fact that they have to use public transport, there are still more channels through which the disease can affect certain sectors of the population. Were these people living in a less densely populated area, the risk of infection would obviously decrease. Therefore, the disease does not make class distinctions, but its transmission does, as the speed at which it spreads is influenced by this factor.

Weather conditions also play a role: higher temperatures and higher humidity make propagation more difficult, and pollution levels have also been found to matter, for the less pollution, the less propagation. At the moment, these three points are clear and can help to plan for the containment of the virus and for the end of the current lockdown. The most densely populated and economically deprived areas need to be more closely monitored, because they are likely to be affected if there is a new outbreak. It can also be expected that when the temperature rises, the spread will slow down somewhat. And if we keep contamination levels low, this will also help prevent the spread of the disease. By considering these indicators we have also seen that Covid-19 has spread with different intensity and at different speeds in different parts of the territory, and this should also be taken into account when planning the de-escalation of confinement measures.

What factors have surprised you most about the spread of the virus?

We have ascertained some points that were to be expected, but personally what has surprised me most is the fact that having more public transport and people using it acts as a propagation agent. Although this was also to be expected. Before the pandemic, governments implemented policies to encourage the use of public transport to the detriment of private transport. It seems that this has a negative effect on the transmission of the virus. Therefore, it is very important that, if public transport has to be used, distances to other users are maintained and a maximum occupancy of one third of full capacity is guaranteed, among other things.

How can these studies help both society and public administration?

Many people are working on this type of research, both within the UB Faculty of Economics and Business and in other universities. What we need to do is to see if we can all get a quantitative picture from which the government can extract guidelines for designing social and economic policies. For example, when planning the de-escalation of confinement measures in different regions, the idea is to see which areas can be deconfined and at what pace.

The Government needs to take into account all kinds of conditions when planning this de-escalation, including possible future outbreaks of the epidemic and, finally, the effects this will have on social inequality and on the economy.

What is the significance of knowledge transfer?

 In our case, I think it is very important, because it helps to make decisions in a more discerning way. In the end, decisions taken by administrations in relation to economic or social policies must be based on rigorous analysis and not on beliefs. In our experience, knowledge transfer serves to reduce uncertainty in decision-making at the institutional and corporate levels. The effects that Covid-19 will have on different economic sectors will have to be quantified, specific policies will have to be put in place to deal with them, and later on these policies will have to be evaluated.


More about Josep Lluís Carrion

The best invention or advancement in history

There is an advancement, that is, writing, the way we have to preserve knowledge, that led to the printing press, which was in turn the means that ultimately enabled education, which I think is the most important socio-economic advancement of all.

A future advancement that scares you

I fear the non-sustainability of human action on the planet and all its ramifications: climate change, armed conflicts, etc.

A thing you would like to see in the future

I would like for us to understand that we have to live in harmony on a global scale, because otherwise there will be no further progress.

The FBG is…

…an institution that helps transfer knowledge generated at the University of Barcelona. My personal opinion is that this is more apparent in the field of experimental sciences than in the field of social sciences. However, it is a platform for contacting institutions and companies that allows us to disseminate and transfer knowledge to society.

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