© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

COVID-19's Global Spread Among The Relatively Rich Has Been Remarkable


The mayor of the city of Miami, Francis Suarez, has tested positive for COVID-19. And he's been giving updates on social media.


FRANCIS SUAREZ: Last night, I was feeling a little bit of aches and pains. You know, I took one 500 mg Advil - sorry - Tylenol Extra Strength. I've been hydrating a lot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As the coronavirus has spread out of China, there's been an interesting pattern about who is getting infected. Oftentimes in outbreaks - take cholera, for example - the disease devastates low-income neighborhoods first. It's far more likely to turn up in densely populated working-class areas than at a country club, say. COVID-19 seems to be behaving differently. Once it departed from China, the global spread of the virus has touched the highest echelons of society. One reason may be elites are getting tested more quickly. But there could be other explanations. To help us understand, we're joined now by NPR's global health correspondent, Jason Beaubien. Hey, Jason.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So this is something very interesting...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, it is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...About this disease. It's almost like it seems the global spread has impacted a certain strata of society. It's people on cruise ships. It's members of Congress and politicians. I mean, we should say that it's not just exclusively those people, but...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...It's certainly notable that they've been affected.

BEAUBIEN: It is very notable. And it's quite interesting. I mean, one of the first major clusters in Europe in late January was among these 21 people at a ski resort in France. And one of them had come over from Singapore. And he appears to be the one that carried the virus with him to France. And this group of ski buddies then all dispersed. And some of them went to the U.K. And some went to Spain. And others went to other parts of France. Thirteen of those 21 ended up testing positive. You know, and we've seen these other clusters on cruise ships. You know, this might seem like cruise ships have something to do with transmission. And that could be true. But again, this is among people with a certain amount of disposable income that can afford a cruise. I was based - not based, but I was working out of Hong Kong earlier in this outbreak. And some of the very first cases in Hong Kong - they turned up at the Four Seasons Hotel and the W Hotel...


BEAUBIEN: No, not cheap - some of the most expensive hotels in Hong Kong. So so far, we're not seeing that many cases in the poorest countries of the world, like in Africa or Central America. And when we do, it turns out it's primarily among people who've been arriving from Europe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's not just among the upper-middle classes - right? - who are on cruises or can take foreign vacations. There's another group here...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Which is really striking. We're seeing among the real social elite - politicians, sports stars, actors.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. It's kind of incredible to see that of all of the cases that are out there, eight members of Congress somehow came into contact with them are now self-quarantining. You've got the Miami mayor, Francis Suarez - he's tested positive. And he did four days after meeting with the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who also met with President Trump. And one member of that delegation has tested positive. So it's circling around, you know, the circles of power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So why is this happening? Why would so many of these early cases be among the rich, the powerful or the affluent?

BEAUBIEN: To be very clear, we really don't have an answer for that. And there's a lot about this disease and the transmissibility of it that we don't know. Researchers are studying that. And to be clear, yes, thousands and thousands of people who are not rich or famous or...



GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And other places, sure.

BEAUBIEN: And other places are also getting it. But one thing is that this disease - it matters who you come in contact with. You know, it's different from some pathogens. I like to think about it like mice. This one is like mice. Some pathogens, like, they come into the room - it's like water. And they just spill all over the floor and go everywhere. This one, it's like the mice can only travel from one place to another on a plane. And they travel there, and they get caught. Then it goes away. But if they manage to survive, then they can go somewhere else. And then you get these other people who come in contact with them, and they can become infected. So it's about these social connections. And that's really what this is showing. And this one, so far, seems to be among people who are out schmoozing, people who are at conventions - they are far more likely to get this virus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien. Thank you very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.