How COVID-19 complicates the journey for climate migrants

By Lisa Thalheimer, 2020 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant in the Risk and Resilience and World Population Programs

Lisa Thalheimer shares her journey in researching climate-related migration in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of taking mental health issues into account in climate science and the policy realm.

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COVID-19 has changed our idea of normal. These unprecedented, stressful times affect us all – some of us more than others. Fear and anxiety over a new disease without any promise of a vaccine anytime soon, global economic downturn, along with feelings of loneliness and emotional exhaustion due to the lockdown, can leave us mentally exhausted. Rates of depression and addiction-related suicide are in fact already on the rise among young people like myself.

Now imagine you are advised to stay at home, but you cannot do so because climate change has turned your entire life upside down: your house is no longer there, you have lost your job, your family or friends – you are likely to feel unhinged. This is a reality for many migrants across the globe. It is inevitable that existing migration patterns will be shifted beyond disasters alone. Cascading impacts form the still unfolding pandemic could compound. No matter if you are a migrant yourself or not, agency and the choice over the decision whether to leave your house or not, and the luxury to socially distance could potentially not be an option with a systemic shock like COVID-19.

These changes in circumstances have also affected me as a young scientist. I would have been in Laxenburg, getting to know my YSSP peers and IIASA colleagues, but this year’s journey has been rewritten – courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was living in Oxford in the UK when I came to realise that mental health is a game changer in the way I manage my day, make decisions, my ability to care for my partner who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and making progress on my PhD thesis. Everything felt more difficult. I was overwhelmed. I wanted to understand why this is the case. My interest soon evolved into researching the links between mental health and my PhD topic of climate-related migration.

For the article “The hidden burden of pandemics, climate change and migration on mental health”, I teamed up with an epidemiologist who specialises in mental health at my old university home, the Earth Institute in New York City. This research experience was an eye-opener, both personally and scientifically.

In our article, we focused on the US, as it has been hit hardest by COVID-19 – in mid-August, the number of COVID-19 cases exceeded five million. On top of this, depression and anxiety are already prominent among Americans, as is costly impacts from disasters. Hurricanes cost the US around US$ 17 billion every year, but estimates show a higher probability of extremely damaging hurricane seasons with climate change. We may know the impact of climate change on assets and on physical health, but what about mental health impacts?

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Although my coauthor and I come from different scientific disciplines, I soon came to realize that our scientific approach has a common denominator: systems thinking. Accounting for interconnections and cascading effects, our article shed light on different systems affected by COVID-19 and situations where mental health issues are likely to become increasingly prevalent in a changing climate. The article focuses on already vulnerable parts of the population, for example those who have been impacted by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Harvey – the latter of which has been made worse by climate change. The article illustrates how COVID-19 becomes a risk multiplier for climate migrants in three distinct case studies: key workers in New York as urban setting, seasonal migration dynamics, and disproportionate effects on black and Latino communities. Unrelenting effects include loss of employment, and a lower likelihood of being able to work from home or to have health insurance than white people.

A better understanding of the mental health-migration-climate change nexus can help absorb adverse mental health outcomes from COVID-19, which would otherwise compound. We however need to tackle systemic risks affecting mental health through synergies in research and policy, and an integrated intervention approach. Free mental health support for key workers through tele-therapy and mental health hotlines provide a practical way forward. Personally, I learned that climate migrants have been relentlessly resilient to systemic shocks. Nevertheless, with mental health issues, it becomes increasingly hard to maintain such resilience. With this commentary, I hope that mental health and interdisciplinary research finds its way in climate science and in the policy realm. We all need a clear mind to attain the Sustainable Development Goals.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The IIASA COVID-19 dashboard

By Tadeusz Bara-Slupski, Artificial Intelligence for Good initiative leader, Appsilon Data Science

Tadeusz Bara-Slupski discusses the Artificial Intelligence for Good initiative’s recent collaboration with IIASA to develop an interactive COVID-19 data visualization tool.

Number of hospital beds per 1000 population © IIASA

Public institutions rely on external data sources and analysis to guide policymaking and intervention. Through our AI for Good initiative, we support organizations that provide such inputs with our technical expertise. We were recently approached by IIASA to create a dashboard to visualize COVID-19 data. This builds on our previous collaboration, which had us deliver a decision-making tool for natural disaster risk planning in Madagascar. In this article, we provide an example of how to help policymakers navigate the ocean of available data with dashboards that turn these data into actionable information.

Data is useful information when it creates value…or saves lives

The current pandemic emergency has put an unprecedented strain on both public health services and policymaking bodies around the world. Government action has been constrained in many cases by limited access to equipment and personnel. Adequate policymaking can help to coordinate the emergency relief effort effectively, make better use of scarce resources, and prevent such shortages in the future. This, however, requires access to secure, timely, and accurate information.

Governments commission various public bodies and research institutes to provide such data both for planning and coordinating the response. For instance, in the UK, the government commissioned the National Health Service (NHS) to build a data platform to consolidate a number of data providers into one single source. However, for the data to be useful it must be presented in a way that is consistent with the demands of an emergency situation. Therefore, the NHS partnered with a number of tech companies to visualize the data in dashboards and to provide deeper insights. Raw data, regardless of its quality, is not useful information until it is understood in a way that creates value – or in this case informs action that could save lives.

IIASA approached us to support them in making their COVID-19 data and indicators more useful to policymakers. The institute’s research is used by policymakers around the world to make critical decisions. We appreciated the opportunity to use our skills to support their efforts by creating an interactive data visualization tool.

IIASA COVID-19 report and mapbook

Research indicates that while all segments of the population are vulnerable to the virus, not all countries are equally vulnerable at the same time. Therefore, there is a need for accurate socioeconomic and demographic data to inform the allocation of scarce resources between countries and even within countries.

IIASA responded to this need with a regularly updated website and data report: “COVID-19: Visualizing regional socioeconomic indicators for Europe”. The reader is introduced to a range of demographic, socioeconomic, and health-related indicators for European Union member countries and sub-regions in five categories:

  • Current COVID-19 trends – information about the number of cases and effectiveness of policy response measures
  • Demographic indicators – age, population density, migration
  • Economic indicators – GDP, income, share of workers who work from home
  • Health-related indicators – information about healthcare system capacity
  • Tourism – number of visitors, including foreign

The indicators and data were chosen for their value in assisting epidemiological analysis and balanced policy formulation. Policymakers often face the challenge of prioritizing pandemic mitigation efforts over long-term impacts like unemployment, production losses, and supply-chain disruptions. IIASA’s series of maps and graphs facilitates understanding of these impacts while maintaining the focus on containing the spread of the virus.

Our collaboration – a dashboard for policymakers

Having taken the first step to disseminate the data as information in the form of a mapbook, Asjad Naqvi decided to make these data even more accessible by turning the maps into an interactive and visually appealing tool.

IIASA has previously approached Appsilon Data Science with a data visualization project, which had us improve the features and design of Visualize, a decision support tool for policymakers in natural disaster risk management. Building on this experience, we set out to assist Naqvi with creating a dashboard to deliver the data to end-users even faster.

The application allows for browsing through a list of 32 indicators and visualizing them on an interactive map. The list is not final with indicators being regularly reviewed, added, and retired on a weekly basis.

White circles indicate the number of cases per 1 million citizens.

The application will continue to provide the latest and most relevant information to track regional performance in Europe also in the post-pandemic phase:

The pandemic has a disproportionate impact on women’s employment and revealed some of the systemic inequalities.

Social distancing measures, for instance, have a large impact on sectors with high female employment rates. The closure of schools and daycare facilities particularly affects working mothers. Indicators such as female unemployment rate can inform appropriate remedial action in the post-COVID world and highlight regions of special concern like Castilla-La-Mancha in Spain.

Given the urgency of the pandemic emergency, we managed to develop and deploy this application within five days. We believe such partnerships between data science consultancies and research institutes can transform the way policymakers utilize data. We are looking forward to future collaborations with IIASA and other partners to help transform data into accessible and useful information.

This project was conducted as part of our Artificial Intelligence for Good initiative. The application is available to explore here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The female face of COVID-19 infections in Europe

By Tomas Sobotka, Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (Univ. Vienna, IIASA, VID/ÖAW), Vienna Institute of Demography

Does COVID-19 affect men and women differently? Tomas Sobotka sheds light on the demographics of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe.

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A question from a Time magazine article has a clear underlying message: “Why is COVID-19 striking men harder than women?” By now, everyone has learned that men are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and, if infected, they tend to die much more often than women.

Are men however also more likely to get infected? On the face of it, the number of infections by gender suggests an almost perfect gender equality. Women represent on average 47% of all infections in 70 countries reporting the number of cases by sex, as listed in the online data tracker by Global Health 5050.

Case settled? Not quite yet. The aggregated total number might be deceiving. To understand an underlying story, one has to dig into the age and sex components of total infections. The overall balance of COVID cases by gender is an outcome of age- and sex-specific patterns of infection rates and the actual age- and sex composition of the population. This in turn, is often gender-unequal, especially at older ages, due to excess mortality among men and higher longevity of women.

In fact, in ten European countries I examined with colleagues from the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital, including Raya Muttarak from the IIASA World Population Program, it turns out that infection rates are highly gendered, especially when looking at the age pattern of coronavirus infection. From the teenage years up until their late 50s, women are more likely than men to be infected with COVID-19. Women in their 20s display the biggest gender gap in infections: on average only 64 men were infected per 100 infected women aged 20-29. After age 60, the pattern reverses, as infection rates among women drop at age 60-69 and the male infection rates go up or stay stable. This crossover is also clearly visible in the charts for Belgium, Czechia, Germany, and Italy. Between ages 60 and 79, men are more likely than women to be infected. The imbalance is sharpest among people in their 70s, with an average of 136 infected males per 100 infected women. This puts older males at a double disadvantage: they are more likely to be infected and, once infected, they are much more likely to die (with both higher age and being a male identified as important risk factors).

Is our evidence credible? Clearly, many infections are undetected and our data are affected by different testing availability and testing priorities across countries. It is possible that women of working age get more frequently tested than men as women tend to be more concerned about their health. This would bias the estimated share of infected women upwards. However, the remarkable regularity in the age- and gender-pattern of infections in the analyzed countries suggests that the observed gender disparities are real. The same gender disparity by age is observed in Czechia, Denmark, Germany, and Norway with relatively few infections, as well as in Belgium, England, Italy, and Spain with high numbers of reported infections. Of course, countries differ in their gender imbalance, especially at younger ages: the gender gap is, well, gaping, in Belgium, which reports only 34 infected men per 100 infected women at age 20-29. It is much smaller in Czechia, Germany, and Norway, but the female dominance at young ages and the male dominance at older ages, with a crossover around age 60, is consistently found in each society we studied.

What’s the likely explanation? At younger ages, the smoking gun points at women’s employment and occupations. Most women of working age in Europe are employed. This may also partly explain why European countries actually register a higher number of infections among women than most other countries, with an average share of 55%. More importantly, women are often working in professions that are most exposed to the infection. Think of nurses, medical doctors, other healthcare professionals, but also all the care workers in retirement homes, which turned out in some countries to be the focal points of infection. The switch in gender balance occurs right around the retirement age. The higher likelihood of infection among older men is probably linked with their poorer health and lower immunity.

If employment is potentially risky for women, staying at home with children—itself a product of ingrained gender inequalities in work and care—may lead to fewer infections. In countries where women’s employment dips after age 30 due to their extensive parental leaves, infection rates often show a distinct dip after that age as well, going up again in their 40s: Czechia, Germany, and partly Norway and Switzerland show such an M-shaped pattern of infection rates among women.

Even though the fatality rates of women below age 60 are low, engagement in care-work poses a higher risk to healthcare workers and care-home staff. This factor should be included in the ongoing discussions on the impact of COVID-19 on women’s health and wellbeing.

COVID-19 infection rates by age and sex per 1,000 population (solid line for females, dashed line for males, left-hand axis) and the relative M/F ratio in infection rates by age in four European countries

This blogpost is based on the following paper:

Sobotka T, Brzozowska Z, Muttarak R, Zeman K, & di Lego V (2020). Age, gender and COVID-19 infections. medRxiv 2020.05.24.20111765. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.24.20111765

References

Global Health 5050. COVID-19 sex-disaggregated data tracker. https://globalhealth5050.org/covid19/  (accessed May 18, 2020)

Ducharme J. Why Is COVID-19 Striking Men Harder Than Women? Time, 1 May 2020. https://time.com/5829202/covid-19-gender-differences/

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Reducing COVID-19 vulnerability in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Raquel Guimaraes, postdoc in the IIASA World Population Program

IIASA postdoc Raquel Guimaraes writes about efforts by the scientific community to encourage governments in Latin America and the Caribbean to increase COVID-19 test coverage to reduce vulnerability.

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Together with a group of demographers from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and endorsed by more than 250 individuals from the academic community, I contributed to a statement urging governments, the World Health Organization, and the Pan American Health Organization, to take immediate action to drastically increase the coverage of COVID-19 tests in the region. This call for action was disseminated by the British Society for Population Studies, Asociación Latino Americana de Población, Sociedad Mexicana de Demografía, Associação Brasileira de Estudos Populacionais, and the Population Association of America, among other important institutions.

I joined this initiative by invitation from Dr. Enrique Acosta and other colleagues, because I firmly believe that the prospects for the COVID-19 pandemic in the LAC region are rather dramatic. Several studies document that, apart from being globally recognized for its high levels of economic and social inequality, the region also suffers from institutional coordination failures and poor governance, a lack of appropriate resources, and presents a unique epidemiological and demographic profile of its population that escalates the negative prospects of the pandemic. I wanted to explore in more detail why these features of LAC are a source of major concern and require immediate action.

Social and economic inequality in LAC will hamper the enforcement of social distancing and isolation measures, which have proven to mitigate the COVID-19 epidemic in other settings. More than half of the population is in the informal labour market and does not have access to social safety nets. For those covered by the social security system, the benefits already proposed by a few governments of the region such as Brazil, fall short of the daily needs of families. In addition to economic inequality, social inequality, which leads to a high degree of cohabitation between adults and the elderly, increases the exposure of those with the highest risk of complications and death.

In addition, with the closure of schools, children who do not have access to day-care centres and the public- or private education system, often rely on the help of their grandparents, which again brings greater vulnerability to families. Not to mention that these children won’t have ensured their learning opportunities, because their parents are often working and not able to home-school them, thus compromising their education outcomes.

Moreover, LAC is facing a rapid demographic transition and aging process, which is temporarily increasing the prevalence of a young population, meaning that the population age-structure of potential infected individuals differs from that of other settings. However, unlike the more developed countries, LAC’s epidemiologic transition, that is, the transition in which the prevalence of infectious diseases is “substituted” by chronic and degenerative diseases, is not complete. Paradoxically, the region exhibits both the prevalence of diseases that have long been eradicated in more developed contexts (such as malaria, dengue, and tuberculosis) and diseases of richer countries (such as hypertension, diabetes, and neoplasms).

On top of all the above-mentioned vulnerabilities, crisis-management efforts in the region are uncoordinated, and lacking transparency and commitment. Taking Brazil as an example: while some mayors and governors adopt measures of social isolation and prevention against COVID-19, parts of the federal executive power not only disdain the problem, but encourages the population not to meet the requirements established by the Ministry of Health. Such conflicting rules are bound to cause misunderstandings among the LAC population. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crucial moment for institutional coordination to ensure the effective management of the crisis.

As an important and urgent call to action for the pandemic in the region, myself and other LAC researchers are calling for an increase in test coverage and measures of social isolation. As reported in the non-specialized media under the slogan “help to flatten the curve”, social isolation allows the rate of contagion of the virus to be reduced, in order to prevent overloading the capacity of the health system. Existing literature documents that while the virus does not cause major damage to health for the majority of infected persons, it brings a high cost to the health system. Furthermore, the impacts on the later lives of individuals who were hospitalized due to the disease are not yet known. Not to mention, of course, the human tragedy and the costs in terms of lives lost to the disease.

Finally, imperative and immediate action against COVID-19 in LAC will depend on the widespread and low-cost application of tests. This is required because the former rigorous isolation measures mentioned above are highly ineffective if not accompanied by aggressive strategies to detect cases of COVID-19. This highlights the relevance of data collection to better inform policymakers and provide researchers with clear diagnoses of the conditions in the region.

References:

Deaton A (2013). Cap. 3. Escaping death in the Tropics. In The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton University Press.

Hoffman K, & Centeno MA (2003). The Lopsided Continent: Inequality in Latin America. Annual Review of Sociology, 29(1), 363–390. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100141

Khemani S, Ferraz C, Finan FS, Johnson S, Louise C, Abrahams SD, Odugbemi AM, Dal Bó E, & Thapa D (2016). Making politics work for development: Harnessing transparency and citizen engagement (Policy Research Report). The World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/268021467831470443/Making-politics-work-for-development-harnessing-transparency-and-citizen-engagement

Pérez CC, & Hernández AL (2007). Latin–American public financial reporting: Recent and future development. Public Administration and Development, 27(2), 139–157. https://doi.org/10.1002/pad.441

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Curbing misinformation about migration in Austria

By Nadejda Komendantova, researcher in the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program

Nadejda Komendantova discusses how misinformation propagated by different communication mediums influence attitudes towards migrants in Austria and how the EU Horizon 2020 Co-Inform project is fostering critical thinking skills for a better-informed society.

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Austria has been a country of immigration for decades, with the annual balance of immigration and emigration regularly showing a positive net migration rate. A significant share of the Austrian population are migrants (16%) or people with an immigrant background (23%). The migration crisis of 2015 saw Austria as the fourth largest receiver of asylum seekers in the EU, while in previous years, asylum seekers accounted for 19% of all migrants. Vienna has the highest share of migrants of all regions and cities in Austria, and over 96% of Viennese have contact with migrants in everyday life.

Scientific research shows that it is however not primarily these everyday situations that are influencing attitudes towards migrants, but rather the opinions and perceptions about them that have developed over the years. Perceptions towards migration are frequently based on a subjectively perceived collision of interests, and are socially constructed and influenced by factors such as socialization, awareness, and experience. Perceptions also define what is seen as improper behavior and are influenced by preconceived impressions of migrants. These preconceptions can be a result of information flow or of personal experience. If not addressed, these preconditions can form prejudices in the absence of further information.

The media plays an essential role in the formulation of these opinions and further research is necessary to evaluate the impact of emerging media such as social media and the internet, and their consequent impact on conflicting situations in the limited profit housing sector. Multifamily housing in particular, is getting more and more heterogeneous and the impacts of social media on perceptions of migrants are therefore strongest in this sector, where people with different backgrounds, values, needs, origins and traditions are living together and interacting on a daily basis. Perceptions of foreign characteristics are also frequently determined by general sentiments in the media, where misinformation plays a role. Misinformation has been around for a long time, but nowadays new technologies and social media facilitate its spread, thus increasing the potential for social conflicts.

Early in 2019, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) organized a workshop at the premises of the Ministry of Economy and Digitalization of the Austrian Republic as part of the EU Horizon 2020 *Co-Inform project. The focus of the event was to discuss the impact of misinformation on perceptions of migrants in the Austrian multifamily limited profit housing sector.

Nadejda Komendantova addressing stakeholders at the workshop.

We selected this topic for three reasons: First, this sector is a key pillar of the Austrian policy on socioeconomic development and political stability; and secondly, the sector constitutes 24% of the total housing stock and more than 30% of total new construction. In the third place, the sector caters for a high share of migrants. For example, in 2015 the leading Austrian limited profit housing company, Sozialbau, reported that the share of their residents with a migration background (foreign nationals or Austrian citizens born abroad) had reached 38%.

Several stakeholders, including housing sector policymakers, journalists, fact checkers, and citizens participated in the workshop. Among them were representatives from the Austrian Chamber of Labor, Austrian Limited Profit Housing (ALPH) companies “Neues Leben”, “Siedlungsgenossenschaft Neunkirchen”, “Heim”, “Wohnbauvereinigung für Privatangestellte”, the housing service of the municipality of Vienna, as well as the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns.

The workshop employed innovative methods to engage stakeholders in dialogue, including games based on word associations, participatory landscape mapping, as well as wish-lists for policymakers and interactive, online “fake news” games. In addition, the sessions included co-creation activities and the collection of stakeholders’ perceptions about misinformation, everyday practices to deal with misinformation, co-creation activities around challenges connected with misinformation, discussions about the needs to deal with misinformation, and possible solutions.

During discussions with workshop participants, we identified three major challenges connected with the spread of misinformation. These are the time and speed of reaction required; the type of misinformation and whether it affects someone personally or professionally; excitement about the news in terms of the low level of people’s willingness to read, as well as the difficulties around correcting information once it has been published. Many participants believed that they could control the spread of misinformation, especially if it concerns their professional area and spreads within their networking circles or among employees of their own organizations. Several participants suggested making use of statistical or other corrective measures such as artificial intelligence tools or fact checking software.

The major challenge is however to recognize misinformation and its source as quickly as possible. This requirement was perceived by many as a barrier to corrective measures, as participants mentioned that someone often has to be an expert to correct misinformation in many areas. Another challenge is that the more exciting the misinformation issue is, the faster it spreads. Making corrections might also be difficult as people might prefer emotional reach information to fact reach information, or pictures instead of text.

The expectations of policymakers, journalists, fact checkers, and citizens regarding the tools needed to deal with misinformation were different. The expectations of the policymakers were mainly connected with the creation of a reliable, trusted environment through the development and enforcement of regulations, stimulating a culture of critical thinking, and strengthening the capacities of statistical offices, in addition to making relevant statistical information available and understandable to everybody. Journalists and fact checkers’ expectations on the other hand, were mainly concerned with the development and availability of tools for the verification of information. The expectations of citizens were mainly connected with the role of decision makers, who they felt should provide them with credible sources of information on official websites and organize information campaigns among inhabitants about the challenges of misinformation and how to deal with it.

*Co-Inform is an EU Horizon 2020 project that aims to create tools for better-informed societies. The stakeholders will be co-creating these tools by participating in a series of workshops in Greece, Austria, and Sweden over the course of the next two years.

Adapted from a blog post originally published on the Co-Inform website.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.