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Testing Times Need Cool Heads And A Long View

Category: General
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I don’t know about you but the phrase “unprecedented pandemic” is beginning to annoy me.

There is no denying that we are living through something that most people alive today have never seen, but to say that it is something that has not happened before is a bit of a stretch.

There was, as most already know, the medieval Black Death – the social, economic and geo-political fallout of which is chillingly, and as it turns out perhaps presciently, documented in Barbara Tuchman’s epic chronicle “A Distant Mirror”. Smallpox, brought by Cortez and his Conquistadores, devastated the Americas during the 16th century crashing civilisations and native populations as it tore through the Inca, Aztec and Mayan cultures. Both of these diseases were more virulent and more deadly than Covid19.

Then there was Spanish ‘flu which killed, with nature’s dispassionate cruelty, more people than the war which had immediately preceded it. In a remarkable coincidence, this spring of Covid19 marks the 100th anniversary of the last serious outbreak of Spanish ‘flu. I will leave that fun fact for the conspiracists…

Unprecedented is therefore perhaps not the right word for pandemics per se.

What is unprecedented is the speed at which the virus has spread due to our global interconnectivity, and unprecedented also describes the speed of the media coverage in its wake.

That, largely doom-laden, coverage is also drowning out the unprecedented developments that are taking place to combat the virus. Engineering effort to develop and repurpose technologies to provide ventilators are turning round projects that would have taken at least two years in only 5-6 weeks. And many of the engineers working on them have not yet met in person due to the unprecedented use of digital communications technology.

Medical research into vaccines and tests are moving at a completely unprecedented pace to deliver potential vaccines and treatments within 18 months; those would take, under normal conditions, up to a decade to get to anything like production scale.

If history teaches us anything it is that all periods of “unprecedented” human setbacks have been rapidly followed by a flowering of (unprecedented) creativity and economic expansion.

Few alive today will recall the Roaring Twenties – immediately after the Spanish Flu – but may recognise the time of The Great Gatsby; a time when a huge flow of capital and wealth washed through the US economy. The initial post war/post flu recession in the USA finished in 1922 and between then and 1927 the economy grew at 7% per annum – arguably an unprecedented rate. The then President, Calvin Coolidge confidently declared that “the business of America is business.” ‘Twas ever thus…or so it seems to us now, yet before that time America was not the global economic engine or power it is today.

The 1920’s also coincided with an unprecedented change in the mobility of American society spearheaded with the rise and dominance of the railroads, making the shipment of goods and people around the continent faster, easier and cheaper. Innovation was also driving production in ways that were simply impossible, even un-thought of, before. Henry Ford had been making the Model T since 1910, but it wasn’t until a 1926 New York Times article used the term “mass production”  (it was actually originally coined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica) to describe their now refined production process that it galvanised the national psyche.

Speed, perhaps the original and constant business disruptor, became the driver of vast wealth.

If we are going to use unprecedented in its truest sense, therefore, we in business would be better employed bending our mind to how the unprecedented rise in technical innovation being driven by this pandemic will affect us when the worst is over; how the use of technology to communicate has changed almost everyone’s lives in unprecedented ways; how unprecedented production techniques such as digital printing are being scaled up to shorten supply chains; how the extended supply lines we have relied on have faltered and sometimes crashed under unprecedented demand; how innovative solutions to business problems are being brought to market at an unprecedented rate; and how businesses can position themselves to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunities that will arise in the coming months and years.

The new business normal will truly be unprecedented.

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About The Author

After 33 years of running my own IT businesses, I've seen trends come, go...and come back again. With each business I've been involved in, the focus has always been on building in value for my customers. I was honoured to receive an OBE for my services to Scottish business in 2018.

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