COVID-19 Pandemic: The Rise of Malthusian Theory? | By: Sumini

09 September 2021 | media_cpps
Article, Essay & Opinion, Main Slide

Yogyakarta, CPPS UGM – The world has not currently become free from the COVID-19 pandemic, even the cases are still showing an increase in some countries, including Indonesia. The real concern of the spike in cases is the limited of medical services due to the limited capacity of medical facilities and resources in treating patients. If this happens, the unhandled problem of high mortality rate due to COVID-19 and other diseases will then become unavoidable. Until the end of August 2021, the mortality rate of COVID-19 was 4.51 million. The COVID-19 cases in Indonesia have reached 4.08 million people with the mortality rate of 132,000 people. 

The high mortality rate during a pandemic will affect the number and structure of the world’s population. At the beginning of the pandemic, for instance, many deaths due to COVID-19 were found in elderly and thus, it may change the composition of population in an area. The official record of changes in population structure due to the COVID-19 pandemic has not been studied in detail and the data has not been released as well due to the high amount of energy and resources being absorbed to deal with COVID-19. The current deaths due to COVID-19 no longer occur in certain age groups, but in almost all age groups. Therefore, the public is increasingly anxious and worried, especially regarding the high mortality rate which will reduce the population.

This situation reminds us of the old theory put forward by Thomas Malthus. At the end of the 17th century (1798), Malthus wrote his opinion in a provocative article entitled An essay in the principle of population as it affects the future improvement of society. He was concerned about the imbalance between developing population growth and food availability. He said that population growth following a geometric series (e.g., from 2 to 4, from 4 to 8, from 8 to 16 and so on) will not be supported by the ability to produce food whose growth follows an arithmetical series (e.g., from 1 to 2, 3, 4, etc.). He then analyzed that as the population grew, the competition among individuals was getting tougher. This situation will be exacerbated by the presence of disastrous factors, such as seasonal disease, epidemics, and catastrophic outbreaks that can wipe out the population. He suggested two things to balance the rate of population growth with food availability, i.e., preventive check and positive check. The former is an effort made to keep population growth under control, such as avoiding marriage and limiting the number of births. The latter is one of the ways for controlling population growth through extreme means, such as war, disease and epidemics, poverty, and famine.

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the deaths, cautious actions are needed to interpret the pandemic as a positive check. Moreover, governments in various countries have made preventive check. In Indonesia, the government has taken precautions to suppress the spread of COVID-19. Since being declared a pandemic by the head of state in March 2020, the government has implemented a large-scale social restriction (known as Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar/PSBB) policy. The policy is the basis for limiting public social activities in public spaces, such as education and some jobs that are performed online. In the mode of transportation, restrictions are made in terms of the passenger capacity and the intensity of its operation, while in places of worship, the policy is applied by not holding worship activities. The restrictions also operate in strategic sectors, such as health, economy and food, fuel oil and gas, and other basic needs. It is still in effect today by concerning the cases of COVID-19 that occurred in village and sub-district units. If no cases of COVID-19 are found in villages and sub-districts, then the activities in public spaces can be held. On the other hand, if thee COVID-19 cases are found, the activities will be restricted. In line with the restrictions on social activities, the government has taken other strategic steps in the form of preparing COVID-19 emergency hospitals, isolation places for COVID-19 sufferers, establishment of shelters, and COVID-19 detection tests. In terms of nomenclature and implementation, the restrictions are continuously updated following the developments of COVID-19 in the community. Therefore, there is no omission for the spread of COVID-19. The government has made preventive check so that the morbidity and mortality rate due to COVID-19 can be suppressed, and thus, natural factors and mechanisms that may work to achieve balance do not work alone. This gives rise to the principle of “Only the strong will survive” as a positive check derivative is not found.

Positive check, as what Malthus reasoned, is the operation of variables that affect population growth and are not controlled. This means that there is an impression of neglect until an evolution is created which is marked by the survival of a strong population, while the population that loses competition will become extinct. The ongoing pandemic cannot necessarily be said to be the “rise of Malthus” to achieve balance because efforts have been made to reduce the impact of deaths from the pandemic. A lockdown has been applied to limit the movement of people to suppress the spread of the COVID-19 virus. There are efforts to provide vaccines to create herd immunity and the establishment of emergency hospitals to deal with COVID-19. If such preventive efforts had not been made, the COVID-19 might have spread more massively and resulted in greater numbers of deaths. Finally, Malthusian theory which states that to get a balance between population and food availability can be reached through a positive check is not found in the COVID-19 pandemic.



Malthus. 1798. An Essay in the principle of population as it affects the future improvement of society. London. (; November 10, 2004)

A. Mukhopadhyay, Malthus. [2003]. Population Theory. An Irony in the Annals of Science, Breakthrough, Vol. 10, No. 3


*Sumini, S.Si., M.Si. | Researcher at CPPS UGM | Language translator: Rinta Alvionita | Illustration: Affen Irhandi/CPPS UGM