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Correlation between COVID-19 and Country’s Urbanization

By Hailay Gebretinsae Beyene, PhD, Mekelle University
Tigrai Online June 7, 2020


The study disclosed that the spread and infection rate of COVID-19 is directly or positively associated with urbanization. The higher the urbanization rate of a country, the more likely for the faster spread of the virus than is the case in countries whose urbanization rate is lower. Moreover, this correlation is stronger in countries whose population is greater than 45 million. Thus, in developing countries whose urbanization rate is much lower such as Ethiopia with urbanization rate of 20.76 (2018), and having higher population size, the spread of COVID-19 will be slower than advanced countries of similar population size and higher urbanization. This finding is against the presumption that African countries will be hardly hit and highly infected countries of the world due to the pandemic. The objective reality of people living in highly geographical dispersed and distanced situation of low urbanized countries by itself is a weapon that contributes significantly in slowing down the speed of the spread of the disease. Hence, the lower urbanization status of developing countries is a blessing in disguise that can be used as an advantage to combat and control the spread of the disease. This implies that, there is no valid ground for African countries to indulge into stampede and taking hasty decisions such as postponement of election under the pre-text of COVID-19. Doing so is an evidence of ignorance of unfounded, irrational decision against the peoples’ interest.


Since the 31 December 2019, the WHO China Country Office was informed of cases of pneumonia unknown etiology (unknown cause) detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China, the new viral disease called COVID-19 have stricken our world. Since it was identified in China in Wuhan city, the virus has infected the whole world resulting 6,535,354 infected and 387,155 deaths (WHO 05 June 2020 report) . The spread of the disease has shaken the world economically, socially, and politically.  

The world communities do not have the same style of living pattern. While in some countries people live in congestion while others live in scattered and dispersed form. While some communities have access to health facilities, others do not. While others have access to information how to control and fight diseases, others do not, and the like. This study has tried to examine one issue that is the association between urban and rural communities, and the pandemic COVID-19. Are communities who live in urban and rural areas equally exposed to the pandemic?

To examine the association between the spread of COVID-19 and peoples’ pattern of living in countries of the world has been examined using Pearson’s Correlation coefficient. This correlation coefficient is a numerical measure that measures how strong the relationship is between two variables. A correlation coefficient ranges between the values of positive 1 and negative 1. The positive coefficient indicates the existence of direct relationship between the two variables under consideration, if negative their relationship is inverse one to another, and if zero, it implies there is no association between the variables. The absolute value of the correlation coefficient gives us the relationship strength. The larger the number of the correlation is, the stronger the relationship it becomes. For example, |-0.85| = 0.85, which has a stronger correlation than 0.75.

Given this backdrop about the concept of correlation analysis, this study has attempted to examine the correlation between the urban and rural living pattern of people and the pandemic COVID-19. To capture the overall rural-urban condition of the living style of the people of a country, the proxy used is the rate of urbanization of each country as provided by United Nations Urbanization rate Statistics for each country. The urbanization rate is the proportion of the population of the country that lives in urban area.  The other variable is the infection cases of COVID-19. World Health organization releases reports on each country’s infection cases each day in terms of quantity of total infection. In this study, instead of considering the absolute numbers of infection cases, proportion of infection cases in relation to the total population of each country is used. Proportion of infected cases of each country is considered to be more representative than taking absolute quantities for examining the correlation of each country’s COVID-19 versus urbanization rate.


Moreover the correlation analysis is run under different scenarios to consider homogeneity and heterogeneity issues among countries in relation to the population size as shown in the table below. It is revealed that the two variables infection rate and urbanization rate are positively related even though the strength of the correlation may differ under different scenarios. This implies that the higher the urbanization of the country, the more likely the country will be exposed to a higher speed of the spread of the pandemic COVID-19. Conversely, the higher the level of rural proportion of the country, the more likely that country will be exposed to a lesser speed of the spread of the pandemic COVID-19.

Table: Correlation between Infection cases of COVID-19 and Urbanization

Countries with population size of

Correlation Coefficient

Number of countries

1 Million and above



5 Million and above



10 Million and above



15 Million and above



20 Million and above



25  Million and above



30 Million and above



35 Million and above



40 Million and above



45 Million and above



50 Million and above



60 Million and above



70 Million and above



80 Million and above



90 Million and above



100 Million and above



Source: Infection rate computed based on the data obtained on Infection cases of each country from World Health Organization, 1 June 2020 Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19), Situation Report No. 133. Data related to the population of countries is obtained from https://worldpopulationreview.com/   on 1 June 2020. Urbanization rate of each country is collected from the United Nations Urbanization Statistics.

The study uncovered that the correlation of the infection cases and urbanization rate is stronger and biased on countries whose population is greater than or equal to 45 million. It is also revealed that the association of infection cases of COVID-19 and urbanization rate is much stronger on those countries whose population is greater or equal to 80 million. To see the correlation of the two cases (COVID-19 vs urbanization) in specific terms let’s take two countries from each end of the urban-rural proportion of the population: USA with urbanization rate of 82.26 percent and Ethiopia with urbanization rate of 20.76 percent (UN Statistics, 2018) in which both are under the category of population greater or equal to 80 million. Based on the correlation result, as USA has higher urbanization rate, the likelihood of the speed of the spread of the COVID-19 in USA will be much faster and in relatively shorter period of time it can reach in all states of the country. On the other hand, in Ethiopia, owing to its very low urbanization rate and the people being dominantly living in rural areas, the likelihood of the speed of the spread of the COVID-19 in Ethiopia will be much slower and in relatively longer period of time it can reach in all states of the country. In the same token, if we dichotomise the world countries in to advanced and developing economies interns of urbanization, advanced countries as highly urbanized and developing countries as less urbanized (rural dominated). The likelihood of the speed of the spread of the COVID-19 in advanced countries will be much faster and in relatively shorter period of time it can reach significantly in all territories with wider area coverage. In contrast, in developing countries, the likelihood of the speed of the spread of the COVID-19 will be much sluggish and in relatively longer period of time it can reach in each territory of the economies.

Why the spread is slower in developing countries and faster in advanced countries? As concerned health institutions such as WHO direct and teach the people, one of the fundamental causes for the infection of COVID-19 is by being physically close to one another with an already infected person. When we see this aspect in the case of urban situation, the physical distance between people in urban areas is shorter in relative terms as compared to what it is in rural areas. In rural areas, in most of the countries, the people are living in a scattered fashion and the possibility of congestion, closer in very short physical distance is far though in rare cases it may happen. Thus, the rural people by their very nature of living style are physically distanced to each other making it unfavourable condition for the spread of the virus.

Hence, the proposition some institutions and spokes people stating that ‘the spread of the COVID-19 in Africa will be so severe’ does not seem sound and founded with facts related to the actual situation as well as the correlation result revealed. Moreover, some countries in Africa such as Ethiopia have passed political decisions of cancelling elections, which is against the actual situation of the spread of COVID-19. Such decisions, especially, in developing countries, where majority of the people live in rural areas in already socially and physically distanced manner, is unfounded and against the facts on the ground.

In fact, the spread of COVID-19 can be influenced by other factors other than distance, such as availability of health facilities, access to information, educational and emotional maturity of the people to take serious measures to control the spread which significantly vary between urban and rural dwellers. It has to be noted that these stated issues and other factors should not be undermined in analyzing the relationship between spread of the infection and urbanization of countries. The focus of this study is to examine the correlation between urbanization and the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

The developing countries objective reality shows that that the overwhelming majority of their people live in rural areas. The lived experience of these countries living already in socially distanced phenomenon can be used for combatting the spread of COVID-19 without additional investment burden. The majority or dominant rural proportion in developing countries can be used as an advantage and effective weapon in controlling the spread of COVID-19. Thus, it is not rationale to postpone election, and other important rights of the people in developing countries under the pre-text of COVID-19 considering it as a barrier to do so. Some unscrupulous government bodies in developing countries may use COVID-19 as a reason to extend their stay in power by misleading the people. This act does not transcend from being a mere feeling based action not supported with scientific facts and is in direct conflict with the findings of the study.


The spread of COVID-19 is positively related to urbanization of a country. The higher the urbanization status of the country, the spread of the disease is faster. In other words, the spread of the COVID-19 is faster in advanced countries. In contrast, the spread of the disease in developing countries where the urbanization rate is low is slower. In sub Saharan African countries and other developing countries, the spread of the virus is slower owing to the actual situation that majority of the people live in rural areas already socially distanced to each other. Therefore, extending election in developing countries under the pre-text of COVID-19 is baseless and does not reflect the actual rural-urban scenario of the countries.  


  • World Health Organization, 5 June 2020 Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19), Situation Report No. 137.
  • World Health Organization, 1 June 2020 Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19), Situation Report No. 133.
  • United Nations Population Statistics, https://worldpopulationreview.com/   accessed on 1 June 2020.
  • Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, Urbanization, https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization  accessed on 1 June 2020.
  • United Nations Population Division. World Urbanization Prospects: 2018 Revision. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS  accessed on 1 June 2020.

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