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Preparedness matters more than density

The bigger lesson we need to learn before the next pandemic hits is to be scientifically and socially prepared.

Los Angeles County passed the painful milestone of 1,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus on Wednesday. With only about 25 percent of California’s population, residents here have made up more than half of the deaths statewide during the global pandemic.

Yes, much of our county is not exactly the wide-open spaces of the Wild West (though some of it very much is). But some parts of the city of Los Angeles are as dense as much of Manhattan.

Still, if density alone is what drives the spread of the virus, well, all of San Francisco is fairly dense. And yet its numbers both for infections with COVID-19 and deaths from it are lower per capita than Los Angeles.

So there are clearly epidemiological complications that are not fully understood here. We’re living them now, but the numbers that chart the spread of the virus will be studied for years before being fully understood.

What is clear even now, though, is that the city-bashers who have posited the “density alone is the killer” argument in recent weeks ignore success stories from some of the densest cities in the world. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, has about 10 million inhabitants, same as Los Angeles County. But they are crammed into 235 square miles; L.A. County is 4,751 square miles.

South Korea and the United States both saw their first coronavirus case Jan. 20. Yet South Korea has seen just 246 coronavirus deaths since then, compared to 1,873 in California alone. Seoul has had just two deaths from the disease. Los Angeles County had 56 deaths on Tuesday alone.

What did they do differently? Not a more stringent economic shutdown. Most Seoul businesses have stayed open, in fact.

The magazine The Week explains: “South Korea sprang into action with early mass testing, tracking and isolating all contacts of those infected. It started developing and stockpiling test kits in early January, as soon as Chinese scientists released the virus’s genetic code and before a single Korean had been infected.”

Dense cities with public transit and crowded sidewalks clearly do offer more chances for infection. But it would seem the bigger lesson we need to learn before the next pandemic hits is to be scientifically and socially prepared.