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.

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.

Fostering cooperation, good governance, and connectivity in the digital era

By Dmitry Erokhin, Research Assistant in the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program

Dmitry Erokhin shares his thoughts on the promotion of economic progress and security through energy cooperation, good governance, and connectivity in the digital era.

Nadejda Komendantova and Dmitry Erokhin at the OSCE EEF meeting in Bratislava © Dmitry Erokhin

From 27 to 28 May 2019, Bratislava hosted the Second Preparatory Meeting of the 27th Economic and Environmental Forum of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE EEF) on “Promoting economic progress and security in the OSCE area through energy cooperation, new technologies, good governance and connectivity in the digital era”.

As part of my work on digitalization in Greater Eurasia, I was particularly interested in attending this meeting.

A major part of the event was devoted to questions surrounding energy security, which is a very important factor of cooperation in the OSCE area. All 57 participating states across North America, Europe, and Asia are interested in stable energy supply. Doing energy right is a way to promote progress, security, and prosperity. Orientation towards sustainable development, limiting the use of conventional energy sources, oil conflicts, and cyber attacks make both energy demanders and suppliers search for new solutions. In this regard, the use of renewable resources promises long-term benefits in terms of energy efficiency, new jobs, as well as a secure and resilient energy sector. This is however not possible without peace, which makes the protection of infrastructure crucial. There is no prosperity without peace and no peace without prosperity.

I found it particularly valuable that new technologies were included in the discussion. Blockchain – a system in which a record of transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are held across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network – along with big data, are creating new opportunities in the energy sector, for example, in terms of new forms of energy trading. However, they can also pose some risks as they create certain dependencies, thus raising questions of sustainability. For instance, automated driving raises many regulatory issues on how to ensure against cyber attacks and missiles, or how to divide responsibilities between producers and users. Advanced technologies have to be employed safely and efficiently. International organizations could play a vital role in enacting common standards and regulatory norms for digitalization and connectivity in this regard. One grand example here is the single window recommendation, which is a trade facilitation idea that enables international traders to submit regulatory documents at a single location. The idea is that such a system would facilitate trade through good governance.

The establishment of regional communication platforms and the development of science, research, and innovations are of particular importance. Key agents need to talk about secure and clean energy. This could be achieved through intra-institutional cooperation and inclusive dialogue. I believe that institutions like IIASA can play a huge role here.

Talking about new technologies, it is an important task to conduct studies on barriers to trade, especially in the context of blockchain and machine learning technologies in digital trade in order to detect inefficiencies at borders and improve market access. In the energy field, there are many controversial estimates (simultaneously in favor of conventional and renewable energy sources), which also make independent reputable studies essential.

Nadejda Komendantova, a researcher with the Advanced Systems Analysis Program at IIASA also represented the institute at the OSCE meeting, where she moderated a session on protecting energy networks from natural and man-made disasters. The sessions’ participants discussed the impact of these factors on energy security, analyzed opportunities and threats for secure energy networks connected with new technologies, raised questions of resilience, and talked about the mitigation of threats through effective policies and cooperation. The OSCE Critical Energy Infrastructure Protection (CEIP) Digital Training Platform was presented during the session.

To conclude, I would like to emphasize that we need more such constructive and fruitful discussions to catalyze trust, growth, security and connectivity. Partnerships create political will and make open dialogue and mutual support very important. I believe that organizations like IIASA are key to making this possible.

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.

Building bridges between Europe and Asia

By Dmitry Erokhin­, MSc student at Vienna University of Economics and Business (Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien) and IIASA Youth Forum participant

Dmitry Erokhin

Dmitry Erokhin at “Connecting Europe and Asia”

On 14 December 2018, the Austrian Central Bank and the Reinventing Bretton Woods Committee co-organized a high-level conference on “Connecting Europe and Asia,” convening high-level policy makers, top business executives and renowned researchers. Taking place toward the end of the Austrian Presidency in the Council of the European Union, the goal of the event was to discuss ways to improve cooperation between Europe and Asia.

As a true Eurasianist and a member of the European Society for Eurasian Cooperation I was really interested in attending the conference.

It was opened by the governor of the Austrian Central Bank, Ewald Nowotny, who said that cooperation between Asia and Europe is vital, especially with China’s growing economic and political influence. Nowotny expressed regret that some countries see this as a challenge rather than an opportunity. Europe, however, remains the best place to be because of its economic strength.

Marc Uzan, the executive director of the Reinventing Bretton Woods Committee, noted that we live in a new age of connectivity. The economic ties between the EU and Asia are quite strong but there is still space for stronger connectivity in the form of physical and non-physical infrastructure, market integration, and maintaining stability in Central Asia. Uzan highlighted the role of the European Investment Bank in various connecting projects.

During the panel session on “Integration in Europe: European Union and Eurasia”, Elena Rovenskaya, the program director for Advanced Systems Analysis at IIASA, presented the institute as a neutral platform for depoliticized dialogue. IIASA has been running a project on the “Challenges and Opportunities of Economic Integration within a Wider European and Eurasian Space” since 2014, analyzing transport corridors, foreign direct investment, and convergence of technical product standards between EU and the Eurasian Economic Union.

This report was especially exciting for me because I had a great opportunity of participating in the International Youth Forum “Future of Eurasian and European Integration: Foresight-2040”, hosted by IIASA in December 2017, and found it interesting to see how research into Eurasian integration at IIASA has advanced since then. The concept of dividing the integration in two subgroups (bottom-up and top-down) suggested by Rovenskaya also seemed new to me.

‘Bottom-up’ integration requires coordination between participating countries and involves development of transport and infrastructure  – known as the Belt and Road Initiative – including development of the Kosice-Vienna broad gauge railway extension, and the Arctic railway in Finland. The top-down scenario would be based on cooperation between regional organizations and programs such as the EU, the EAEU and the Eastern Partnership. The challenge lies in harmonizing different integration processes.

I find it unfortunate that despite the positive impact of theoretical EU-EAEU economic integration and cooperation showed by IIASA’s research, the economic relations between the EU and the EAEU are currently defined by foreign policies and not by economic reasoning.

In his address, William Tompson, the head of Eurasia Department at the Global Relations Secretariat of the OECD, highlighted that the benefits of enhanced connectivity were not automatic and that complex packages, going beyond trade and infrastructure, would be needed. I consider that Tompson raised an important point that we should not exaggerate the benefits – landlocked locations and distance to global markets can be mitigated but not eliminated. Coordination among countries to remove infrastructure and non-infrastructure bottlenecks will necessary.

Tompson’s empirics convinced me that there is a call for change. Kazakhstan pays US$250/t of freight to reach the countries with 20% of the global GDP, compared to just US$50 for Germany and the US. This is due to factors like distance, speed, and border crossings.

I was impressed by Tompson’s international freight model. It shows that logistics performance is generally poor, and competition could be enhanced. The link between policy objectives and investment choices is often unclear. Tompson also criticized the ministries of transport, which he called “ministries of road-building”, for not knowing that transport was far more than that.

The head of unit in the European Commission, Petros Sourmelis, presented the EU’s perspective. According to him, the EU is open to deeper cooperation and trade relationships with its Eastern partners, however, there are many barriers, including the EAEU’s incomplete internal market.

I consider the proposal made by Sourmelis that “one needs to start somewhere” and his hope for more engagement quite promising, but engagement at the political level is some way off. However, the EU has seen constructive steps from Russia and is open to talks to build trust.

Member of the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission Tatyana Valovaya closed the high-level panel session. I think it was a good lead-up to start with a historical analogy of the ancient Silk Road. According to her, the global trade geography in the 21st century is shifting once again to Asia and China was likely to become a leading power within the next 20 years. I was encouraged by the idea that regional economic unions will likely lead to better global governance and building interregional partnerships between Europe, Asia and Eurasia will be vital to achieve it.

Valovaya reminded delegates that in 2003 a lot of political and technical work had been achieved towards EU-Russia cooperation, which had then been stopped for political reasons. In 2015, the EAEU began wider cooperation with China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and in May 2018 a non-preferential agreement was signed to harmonize technical standards and custom regulations, to decrease non-tariff barriers as much as possible and to support cooperation projects in the digital economy.

I share the view of Valovaya that the EAEU should not only consider China as a key partner. Valovaya gave the US as a good example, which has multiple economic partnership agreements. She admitted that the EAEU had some “growth pains” but stressed it is normal for such a project and efforts are focused on solving the problems.

As for me, I believe it is necessary to understand the fundamental differences for the further connectivity. Valovaya emphasized that the EAEU was not aiming to introduce a common currency or to create a political union like the EU. EU-EAEU cooperation will strengthen both unions. More technical cooperation will be needed. And, of course, the leaders of the EU should be participating in the dialogue to better understand the EAEU and its work towards more connectivity in Eurasia.

 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.

Not a heron: the Eurasian Economic Union should ‘stand on two legs’

By Evgeny Vinokurov, Director of the Centre for Integration Studies at the Eurasian Development Bank, member of the IIASA-led project, Challenges and Opportunities of Economic Integration within a Wider European and Eurasian Space

An Italian nursery riddle goes: “Why does the heron stand on one leg? Because if it takes away the second leg, it will fall down!” An ornithologist will tell you that herons have incredibly strong legs. The EAEU, consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia is not a heron – it does need to stand firmly on two legs. In this case, one leg is the European Union, and the other leg is the People’s Republic of China. An economist will tell you that the strength of “economic legs” underpinning the countries which make up the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) can be described, at best, as fair to middling: the heavy reliance on oil and gas is not particularly wholesome. That is why Russia and its EAEU partners need to establish close economic ties with both the EU and China.

© Galushko Sergey | Shutterstock

Both partners are critically important for the EAEU. The EU remains its largest trade partner: in 2016 it accounted for 50% of total exports from, and 41% of total imports to the Eurasian Union. EAEU member states are interested in expanding the inflow of European investment capital, transfer of EU technologies, and stable EU demand for energy. The EAEU, in turn, is the third largest EU trade partner (after the US and China); accordingly, the EU may be interested in liberalization of trade with the EAEU (establishment of a free trade agreement), reduction of non-tariff barriers in EAEU member states (with a view to increase EU exports), and stability of EAEU power supplies.

At the same time, the EAEU’s “turn to the East” is slowly gaining momentum: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries,first and foremost, China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations  (ASEAN) countries, are beginning to overtake the EU. By the end of 2016, the Eurasian Union had imported 1.5% more goods from APEC countries (42.3% of total imports, mostly from China, Korea, and ASEAN countries) than it did from EU countries. It is also important for EU investors to understand that they are exposed to an ever-increasing risk of losing EAEU markets due to the inflow of capital from the leading Asian economies.

These matters have been subjected to rigorous applied analysis in Challenges and Opportunities of Economic Integration within a Wider European and Eurasian Space, a project initiated by IIASA in 2014. It advanced an independent dialogue platform to facilitate interaction between representatives of supranational bodies, expert and business communities of the two unions. The project is designed to help its European and Eurasian participants find common ground with respect to a possible inter-union trade and economic agreement.

According to project publications , it is advisable to reach a comprehensive agreement covering a much broader range of partnership domains than that associated with a standard free trade area. According to the latest calculations by European and Russian experts, an EU-EAEU free trade agreement would produce a positive impact. However, experts from the Information and Forschung (IFO) institute in Munich point out that EAEU agriculture and automotive industry may suffer heavy losses. This demonstrates that it is necessary to work out a quite structurally complex solution offering asymmetric advantages to the two sides.

Relations with China display completely different patterns. Two following “tracks” are especially important.

The first relates to the ongoing negotiations on a non-preferential agreement on trade and economic cooperation between the EAEU and China, envisaging reciprocal minimization of barriers in customs regulations and the financial sector, and intensification of investment cooperation. Talks have already been underway for one year, and are expected to continue for another year or two.

The second track deals with realization of the One Belt One Road  initiative. It involves implementation of large-scale joint infrastructure projects, primarily in transportation.  EAEU’s participation in the One Belt One Road initiative is very promising for its member states, especially for Russia and Kazakhstan, which need to remove infrastructural limitations inhibiting railroad carriage of containerized cargoes.  The EAEU continues to face the issue of insufficient investment capital allocation to container logistical hubs. Kazakhstan will also need to eliminate bottlenecks in its transportation and logistics infrastructure, primarily by building modern container terminals. These are but several of the numerous problems facing the EAEU.

We are looking at One Belt One Road in the broad Greater Eurasia context. Higher efficiency of Greater Eurasian land transportation corridors could enhance trade and generate numerous industrial opportunities. This is particularly relevant for landlocked countries and regions (all Central Asian countries, Russian Urals and Western Siberia).

Russia and its EAEU partners need to establish close economic cooperation ties with both the European Union and China. The EAEU will have to learn to balance between those two poles, making ample use of economic vistas presented by the tripartite cooperation setup, and “capitalize on contradictions.” If the EAEU manages to reach this overarching goal, its foreign economic policy would be successful.

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.