In our previous post we mentioned the impact of the last acknowledged global pandemic, the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918/19, as being remarkably muted, primarily, it seems, because of the context in which it occurred.
However, if one wishes to understand the extent to which pandemics can, in fact, change the direction of human affairs, one needs to go back much further, understanding not only their relative scale, but also how a particular disease was viewed at the time.
Interestingly, in the same way there is the Richter Scale to measure the force of an earthquake or the Saffir-Simpson one to measure the strength of a hurricane, there is actually one for broader disasters afflicting Humanity. This is the Foster Scale (created by Canadian geographer Harold D. Foster), which like the other 2 scales mentioned, is logarithmic in nature. A sense of what “disaster” means can be seen by the fact that only World War II ranks ahead of the Black Death, which between 1347 and 1352 is estimated to have killed a third of Europe’s then 75MM population (which, ignore the fact of all the deaths it caused elsewhere in the world). To say that this was generally-viewed as a portent of the end of the world, would be an understatement.
While debate continues about the true mortality rate of Covid-19, current estimates usually do not rise above low single digit percentages. The bubonic plague has an estimated mortality rate of up to 60% in populations which have no immunity. One can work out the impact which an equivalent pandemic would have on the Earth’s current 7.7BN inhabitants- and, of course, it would be worst in dense population centres in an urbanizing world. So, in relative terms, Covid-19 has less of an epidemiological impact; but the nature of our inter-connected and information-deluged world exacerbates the economic and behavioural outcomes.
Apart from the fact that the consequences of the Black Death led to the reconfiguration, at least in Western Europe, of feudal societies, and so laid the foundation for the world we know today, it also, even then, produced widely varying outcomes based upon how a particular population responded. Bear in mind this was an era which had no understanding of the plague’s source, vectors and modes of transmission.
The Republic of Florence lost 50% of its population.
La Serenissima, Venice, an international trading hub, up to 60%.
However, rather than succumbing to despair and sliding into irrelevance, the Venetians fought back. They noted that some other Mediterranean cities were showing that restricting access from the outside, and keeping incomers isolated, seemed to be reducing the plague’s effects. They did not know why, but they saw that the approach worked. So, they instituted a policy of rigid isolation- for 40 days. And the Italian for 40 is “quaranta”- hence quarantine. In one of those remarkable coincidences, the average period from infection with, to death from bubonic plague is now known to be 37 days!
The point of all this is not only that uncertainty tends to makes human beings collectively fearful and panic-stricken (which is contagious in itself), but also that human beings are adaptive, curious, learning creatures, with remarkable resilience. We would not be here if we were not.
So, while the current economic and epidemiological outlook is at best uncertain, it is foolish and counter-productive to despair or “freeze”. Such behaviour only exacerbates negative outcomes. Much better, while recognizing and managing the risks of the situation, to be thoughtful, analytical, and proactive- which is the Awbury approach.
The Awbury Team
[Note: this post owes a debt to the always interesting and counter-intuitive Eric Barker- psychologist and author of “Barking up the Wrong Tree: How to be awesome at Life”]