Jana Berkessel, Tobias Ebert, Jochen E. Gebauer, Thorsteinn Jonsson, Shigehiro Oishi
Pandemics Initially Spread Among People of Higher (Not Lower) Social Status: Evidence From COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu

Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2022: 13, Heft 3, S. 722–733
ISSN: 1948-5506 (print), 1948-5514 (online)

According to a staple in the social sciences, pandemics particularly spread among people of lower social status. Challenging this staple, we hypothesize that it holds true in later phases of pandemics only. In the initial phases, by contrast, people of higher social status should be at the center of the spread. We tested our phase-sensitive hypothesis in two studies. In Study 1, we analyzed region-level COVID-19 infection data from 3,132 U.S. regions, 299 English regions, and 400 German regions. In Study 2, we analyzed historical data from 1,159,920 U.S. residents who witnessed the 1918/1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. For both pandemics, we found that the virus initially spread more rapidly among people of higher social status. In later phases, that effect reversed; people of lower social status were most exposed. Our results provide novel insights into the center of the spread during the critical initial phases of pandemics.