The Pareto Principle and COVID-19

In 1906, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto observed a pattern of distribution that would transform our understanding of the natural world and epidemiology. He observed that 80% of Italy’s wealth belonged to 20% of Italy’s population. Pareto discovered a similar distribution in the economic data of every other nation he studied. He went on to observe the same 80-20 split in his garden. He observed that 20% of his peapods contained 80% of the peas. At that moment wisdom stretching back to the writing of the gospel became a statistical principle. The wisdom in question being the Matthew Principle. Drawn from the Gospel according to Matthew ‘For the man who has will always be given more, till he has enough to spare; and the man who has not will forfeit even what he has’ (Matthew 25;29).

The Pareto Principle, often referred to as the 80/20 Principle, is a fundamental underlying measure in human productivity. Made ever more present in the popular imagination by academics like Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein. Its economic significance is fascinating. Suggesting that an amassing of wealth by a small minority is somewhat inevitable.

The observations made by Vilfaredo Pareto are very similar to observations made by Derek Price the British Physicist. He observed that 50% of the work is done by the square root of the total number of people who participate in the work. That is to say that in a company of 100 people 10 employees are responsible for 50% of the output. His law can be modelled using an approximate L-shaped graph with the number of people on the vertical axis, and productivity and or resources on the horizontal. Prices law proves true when looking at inequality within the United Kingdom. In 2016, the ONS calculated that the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. Or in other words, the square root of the UK population has amassed 44% of the nation’s wealth. This inequality when seen through the prism of Prices law, the Matthew Principle, and the Pareto Principle becomes far less obscene.

So why bring up these various distributions. Some claim an understanding of them has the ability to change one’s productivity. If one can concentrate their efforts on the most impactful 20%, so the argument goes, their reward will be somewhat disproportionate to the effort. The uneven distributions highlighted can also serve as an argument against some of the woke ideas that unfortunately seem to be gaining ground In many of our institutions. But that’s a matter for another time.

Perhaps the most interesting and topical example of a Pareto distribution, that is to say a distribution which follows the Pareto Principle, is research done in Hong Kong regarding COVID-19. Using contact tracing data researchers were able to find that around 20% of COVID-19 sufferers are highly infectious and responsible for 80% of all transmissions. They also found that 70% of people infected with the virus do not pass it on to anyone else.

Eric Topol, MD, a man who has published over 1,200 peer-reviewed articles, with more than 250,000 citations made the following observation in a tweet on the 24th May 2020. ‘The Pareto Principle—80/20 rule—law of the vital few, is quickly getting backing for #SARSCoV2 transmissibility.’ His evidence cited include the research from Hong Kong previously referenced as well as two further studies. The first study used mathematical modelling to come to the conclusion that 10% of infections were responsible for 80 % of the spreading. The second study found that 1-5% of infections are responsible for 80% of the transmissions. The citations for the three studies can be found in the order I mentioned them at the bottom of this article.

So why bring up the uneven distribution in coronavirus spreading and its relationship with various principles of cumulative advantage. For no other reason than it’s thoroughly interesting.

Adam, Research Square, May 21, 2020
Abbot, Wellcome Open Research, April 9,2020
Miller, MedRxiv, May22, 2020.

Article by Young Reporter Grant Clark
First appeared in Grimsby Telegraph 24th November 2020