The United States, however, already practices a form of social distancing in its daily life through suburban living. For decades, Americans have been criticized for their detached, single-family houses and their solo car commuting, but these factors may also mean that Americans are less likely to be in close quarters with strangers during their daily lives than are residents of most other developed countries. That alone means we have a form of protection many Italians or Chinese didn’t.
The data are crystal clear on this. China’s population density is 397 people per square mile. Italy’s is 532 people per square mile, and South Korea’s is 1,366. The United States, by contrast, has only 94 people per square mile. That’s got to be a fact in our favor.
We also come into contact with fewer people when we commute. According to the 2017 American Community Survey, more than 80 percent of Americans either work from home or commute alone by car. In Beijing and X’ian, on the other hand, only 30 percent of commuters travel by car. Italians similarly use public transit much more frequently than do most Americans. A paper from the Brookings Institution says that the average resident of Milan, the epicenter of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, takes 350 trips a year on public transit compared to 17 for the average resident of San Diego. It’s a lot easier to get sick from the sneezing person next to you on the bus than it is driving by yourself.
These data suggest why New York seems especially hard hit by the pandemic. New York is one of the most densely populated places anywhere, with nearly 28,000 people per square mile. (Even Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated, has only about 3,200 people per square mile.) And most of those New Yorkers don’t drive to work; New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority says that more than 80 percent of rush-hour commuters to the central business district in Manhattan take transit. With a few exceptions in Staten Island and the fringes of the outer boroughs, New Yorkers live, work, commute and shop in much closer proximity to other people than almost anywhere else in the United States. It’s no wonder the virus is spreading rapidly there and in the commuter suburbs.
Other unique features of American life may also protect us from the coronavirus. The disease is most fatal to the elderly, and Americans are significantly younger than other nations. Italy’s median age is over 47 and South Korea’s is over 43. Ours, however, is only 38.
Americans are also much less likely to live with older people than are Italians, Chinese or South Koreans. A German economics professor, Moritz Kuhn, has been looking into social interactions as a way of explaining the virus’s spread. He found that nearly 30 percent of Chinese between the ages of 30 and 49 live with their parents. More than 20 percent of Italians and South Koreans between those ages also live with their parents, but less than 10 percent of Americans do. In those other countries, it’s easier for a healthy middle-aged person to get the disease from social contact during the day and unwittingly transmit it to an elderly person during the evening. In the United States, that’s a very rare possibility.
None of this means that the United States won’t be hard hit. It does, however, mean that we may stand a better chance than other nations at avoiding the high infection and death rates that dominate today’s headlines.