by Paul Ford
A infection starts in China, seemingly spread by person to person contact. It spreads. Cases appear across the world, from Asia to Europe and the Americas. Most of those affected develop flu-like symptoms that rapidly escalate into pneumonia. No, not the current Coronavirus outbreak, but its predecessor, SARS. In November 2002 a farmer in the Shunde district of Guangdong province fell ill. By February 2003 SARS had reached Hong Kong, and from there the infection went international. Over the next two years over 8,000 people became sick and 774 died. There was also a significant economic impact. With interpersonal contact considered an unacceptable risk by many, the decline in travel, tourism and even retail sales in affected areas was dramatic. On a global scale, the estimated loss to the tourist trade was over US$30 billion, possibly as high as $50 billion. That translated to a 25% loss of tourism GDP and 2.8 million jobs in China alone. Nearly twenty years on, we’re seeing some remarkable similarities. Although China has reacted far more quickly this time, at the time of writing there have been over 20,000 confirmed cases of the Coronavirus, with 425 fatalities. Less well publicised, 489 cases have already recovered from the infection. But cities have been locked down, plane travel stopped, borders closed. The Chinese stock markets have being seriously impacted and commodities trading suspended. Tourism in the Far East is inevitably damaged and it might take a considerable time to recover. The slump in oil demand by China has impacted on the world markets too, and it's possible that businesses you work with will be affected by the economic fallout.
France and Britain, among other countries, have evacuated people by plane from Wuhan, the city of 11 million at the epicentre of this outbreak. The media have seized on the latest potential disaster with almost undisguised relish. Headlines such as ‘ZOMBIELAND’, ‘APOCALYPSE NOW’, ‘NOWHERE TO HIDE’ and ‘KILLER VIRUS’ decorate front pages.
But let’s step back. A hundred years back. In the last months of the First World War and in its immediate aftermath an epidemic swept the world. Starting from a military hospital in Étaples, France, the inaccurately named ‘Spanish Flu’ used mass troop movements to distribute the infection on a global scale. And it killed. Although truly accurate figures aren’t available, from 1918 to 1920 it wiped out around 5% of the world’s population. It killed more people in 24 weeks than HIV/AIDS did in 24 years. Britain lost over 250,000 men, women and children, France some 400,000. The United States saw up to 675,000 die. Indonesia had an incredible 1.5 million fatalities, and India a staggering 17 million. It puts our present position in stark contrast.
So, of course, be careful. But remember that our ability to recognise, react and counter threats like this have come on enormously. Whether you are an individual or a manager/leader responsible for a business, be aware but act within reason. Use common sense. And take your lead and make decisions based on the information available from sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), not clickbait headline generators and tabloid hysteria mongers.