What is the impact of a pandemic on the world economy? Or what is the impact of the economy on the spread of a virus? The limits of human networks

by HansNauj2 min read20th Mar 20201 comment


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Juan G. Diaz Ochoa

In the current virus outbreak, we all are experiencing for the first-time restrictions like those in war times and suddenly life is feeling like a bad B movie. The impact is not only in our private lives, but also in our economy and fundamental social interactions. Now, regarding the current facts, and making a comparison with the SARS outbreak of 2002, there is a constant question: why in that time there has been no global pandemic, and why we are now seeing a rapid propagation of a virus? Similarly, why we are experiencing a global deterioration of social norms and democracies? Perhaps there is a problem with the size of our networks[1].

Besides the obvious analysis of the biology of the virus (SARS-1 in 2002 vs. SARS-2 in 2020), we must not forget the structure of the networks making possible its spread. We are seeing not only the propagation of one infection in a large network, but in reality, the outbreak of different coinfections of different nature (biological, social) that are mutually influenced (Chen u. a. 2013).

A network growth subsequently associated to the spread of one “infection” (distribution of production systems and delivery chains or even envy[2] (Ramírez Barrios, Díaz Ochoa, und Schneider 2007)) is followed by the spread or other infections with a biological (viruses) and social character (misinformation or trends). In all cases there is a critical threshold in the network size and topology allowing a massive spread of tendencies or infections, and all of them have a mutual influence [3].

Humans have built a large-scale system that extends into a global network that is fragile due to its complexity and tendency to promote homogeneity over diversity. The growth of this network has been very rapid and indiscriminate with great environmental impact in different regions and scales, particularly afterthe world wide web, the end of the Cold War, trade deals, and new, rapidly developing economies fully entered in the global supplying chains after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some inconclusive analysis of the current outbreak just points to this environmental problem as first cause of this pandemics, since livestock, hosting such diseases[4] (Cui, Li, und Shi 2019), is transported to human settlements as a food source.

Unfortunately, the interconnection between different production chains favors the exchange of a few products and technologies that require just homogeneity in different areas (social, cultural, economic) helping the smooth operation of production and logistic processes, despite local cultural differences between different places like Istanbul, New York or Bogota. In this way, our nets slowly look like a homogeneous environment (like bananas or a palm oil farm). "Risks have been allowed to fester, they are the underbelly of globalization"[5].

More data and research are needed to confirm or deny the idea of limiting the growth and topology of a human/social economic network to a safe size. But if confirmed, we as human species must begin to identify and validate the threshold parameters. Simultaneously, our cultural, economic and social activity must again promote a diversity (which must also be reflected in our natural environment). Interestingly the current dramatic outbreak of COVID-19 has let the people recognize the risks embedded in the size of such large networks. For instance, in trade "once supply chains were disrupted [by coronavirus], people started looking for alternative suppliers at home, even if they were more expensive. "If people find domestic suppliers, they will stick with them… because of those perceived risks."[6]

However, it is worth asking if it is not already too late, as is limiting the increase in the overall temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The effects are at least now visible in the current measures that governments around the world have taken to limit human mobility in response to the 2019-NCOV outbreak, with extreme measures such as the closure of schools and universities or the prohibition of free movement inside and between countries.

The restructuring of human activities as well as social/private behavior, and not the restriction of individual freedom, seems to be the long last effect, in particular considering that the limitation of the mobility does not considerably influences the spread of the disease and that hat the travel ban introduced in Wuhan on January 23 delayed progression of the epidemic throughout Mainland China by three to five days—a modest effect[7] („The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak | Science“ o. J.). In such case more individual responsibility for the world, and not a war attitude, seems to be the adequate answer for this and future crisis.

[1] Which is evident in the byzantine international supply chains: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/supply-chains-and-coronavirus/608329/

[2] Ramírez Barrios, Elena, Juan G. Díaz Ochoa, und Johannes J. Schneider. 2007. „How Fair Is an Equitable Distribution?“ Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications 374 (1): 369–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physa.2006.07.019.

[3] Chen, Li, Fakhteh Ghanbarnejad, Weiran Cai, und Peter Grassberger. 2013. „Outbreaks of coinfections: The critical role of cooperativity “. EPL (Europhysics Letters) 104 (Juli).

[4] Cui, Jie, Fang Li, und Zheng-Li Shi. 2019. „Origin and Evolution of Pathogenic Coronaviruses“. Nature Reviews Microbiology 17 (3): 181–92. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41579-018-0118-9

[5] Ian Goldin, Mike Mariathasan, The butterfly effect: how globalization create systemic risks, and what to do about it https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhqgq

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52104978

[7] „The effect of travel restrictions on the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak | Science“. o. J. Zugegriffen 18. März 2020. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/03/05/science.aba9757.full.


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