Commerce and Contagion

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Commerce and Contagion

For as long as we have had commerce, we have had contagion. The Greeks and the Romans were both hampered and harassed by wave upon wave of endemics, epidemics and pandemics. As urban generation and population density grew so too did occurrence and frequency of epidemics.

The introduction of ancient technology, in the form of Roman roads and the ensuing commerce, made possible by the education and common language of the Greeks, resulted in the wide movement of large groups of people. As traders, tourists and teachers travelled from urban centre to urban centre selling goods, building a personal following and developing political and economic networks. They were most likely unaware that their patterns of behaviour were producing a bond that would result in pandemics and progress walking hand in hand through the pages of history. The very term ‘quarantine’ succinctly captures the connection between commerce and contagion. The word has its route in the Italian words ‘quaranta giorni’ which translates literally as 40 days. This was the length of time that trade ships coming from infected ports had to sit off the coast of Venice before they would be permitted to enter the city in order to deliver their goods.

The lesson of history is that with each pandemic the population is faced with a choice; capitulate or innovate. One of the earliest recorded epidemics, that of the so called ‘Plague of Athens’ from 430 to 427BC saw the outbreak begin in Piracus, the port area of the city. However it was the densely populated upper city that was the worst affected by the contagion. The fact that the plague broke out in the port area of the city is not insignificant. The disease was most likely brought to Athens by traders arriving by sea. Sources from the time suggest that the so called plague, most likely with its roots in Sub-Saharan Africa, probably travelled across the Babylonian trade routes finding the unsuspecting people of Athens a defenceless and fertile ground for infection.

The Athenian people did not fully contemplate the affect their lifestyle was having on the spread of the illness and much criticism was levelled upon the city leader Pericles, not least because he insisted in moving more and more people from the country inside the city walls. Thus packing to breaking point an already overpopulated city. This of course led to the already rampant infection taking an horrific toll on the Athenians. The timing of this could not have been worse for the people of Athens. They were already engaged in a costly war with Sparta. The effect of the infection left them vulnerable and exposed at a critical time and may well have resulted in a weakened Athens ultimately succumbing to the plague free Sparta. It has been argued that the failure to get to grips in combatting this illness led to the final decline of Athens as a City State.

The Black Death or the Great Plague of London in 1665 was not considered the Great Plague because it was the biggest or most widespread, but because it was the last of its kind in the city. The following year would see the Great Fire and the subsequent redevelopment of the London streets overseen by Sir Christopher Wren. The redevelopment would see much of the overcrowded and unsanitary housing conditions of central London replaced with less crowded housing solutions on London’s streets. Progress and the development, literally of the standard in housing saw an end to the occurrence of Bubonic Plague on the streets of London. This of course may have been the result of a happy accident, but the link between progress in housing conditions and the end of this contagion did not go unnoticed. Unsanitary housing and population density was slowly eliminated across the country albeit in some instances within recent memory.

The Broad Street cholera epidemic of 1864 was caused by a nearby cess pool draining into the water course that fed a drinking water pump in London’s Soho. It would take some time for the lessons to be learnt and implemented, but in time the cause of this epidemic would see the beginnings of ‘Germ Theory’ formed and in time the gradual phasing out of shared community water pumps and in time the installation of Joseph Bazalgette’s magnificent feat of engineering that is the London Sewage system. Bazalgette’s network of pipes and tunnels would become the model for the sewage system that lies below the city streets of todays modern cities.

Epidemics and pandemics alike have made their mark on society and on commerce. They have prompted progress and instigated innovation. Urban spaces, modern conveniences, these advances in medicine, construction and engineering all have their beginnings in contagion. The challenge for business leaders today is to see the opportunity that crisis brings and to innovate in such a way so as to overcome the challenge and leave a mark on the future. A mark that brings improvement and lasting results.

Jonie Graham – August 2020

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