What History Can Teach Us About Pandemics

By Pierre G. Villere

The COVID-19 pandemic just rolls on, continuing to disrupt our lives, and now much has been written about what we can expect in the months and years to come.

If history is a harbinger of what lies ahead, there is much we can expect based on prior pandemics as the global population battles this scourge. History is instructive, as repeating itself could influence the way we approach running our businesses and our plans for the future.

Two great plagues in history are well-documented for the pain the world’s population suffered, and the prosperity that followed them. The Black Death of the mid-14th century was remarkable in its spread.

As we think about our current globalization, and how easily airplane travel contributed to the widespread infection of COVID-19, humanity’s mobility 700 years ago was almost as great despite the lack of mechanized travel.

Historians tell us the bubonic plague travelled along the Silk Road with armies and traders, and also by ship, where it was believed that it was first introduced to Europe via Genoese traders.

From there, it spread throughout Italy, just as COVID did, then spread northwest across Europe, striking France, Spain, Portugal and England, then east and north through Germany and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350. There were no jet airplanes or automobiles, but the highly mobile ship trade spread the disease globally.

According to Medieval Historians. It is likely that over four years, 45-50% of the European population died from the Black Death, and others suggest it could have been as much as 60%.

In 1348, the disease spread so rapidly that before any physicians or government authorities had time to reflect upon its origins, about a third of the European population had already perished. In crowded cities, it was not uncommon for as much as 50% of the population to die.

So like COVID-19, the the bubonic plague spread rapidly, and in the absence of modern medicine, took an enormous toll. But if history is a guide, it seems likely that consumption will come back with a vengeance, as periods of plague-driven austerity have often been followed by periods of liberal spending.

It was well-documented that spending and gambling came roaring back in Europe after the plague, in part because so many viewed themselves as having escaped the grip of the disease, and therefore allowed themselves the freedoms of a second chance.

In More Recent History. This bounce-back in attitudes and sentiment was even more evident after the Spanish Flu that gripped the globe at the end of World War I.

That disease also decimated the global population, with estimates of between 50 million and 100 million deaths at a time when the world’s total population was only 1.8 billion. But like the years after the Black Death, sentiment bounced back, and the Spanish Flu years gave rise to the Roaring ‘20s, a time when financial prosperity and loosening behaviors were the norm throughout the world.

In looking back, there are a couple of facts that seem to portend what lies ahead. First, these two pandemics lasted from a couple to a few years.

While today we have modern medicine and the promise of a vaccine just around the corner, which could help control the spread of the disease, we can expect to maintain the current precautions well into 2021 – and possibly beyond.

The challenge for our industry will be in keeping our workforces, and our customers, safe.

We must maintain the safety protocols that almost every company has initiated to slow the spread and be prepared for the unknows of how the construction economy will react in the intermediate term.

As I have written before, beyond the grip of COVID-19 and when we come out on the other side, expect an expanding economy, prosperous times and increasing volumes for our industry.

PGV headshot 2016

Pierre G. Villere serves as president and senior managing partner of Allen-Villere Partners, an investment banking firm with a national practice in the construction materials industry that specializes in mergers and acquisitions. He has a career spanning almost five decades, and volunteers his time to educate the industry as a regular columnist in publications and through presentations at numerous industry events. Contact Pierre via email at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @allenvillere.

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