Learning from Venice

History, as the saying goes, repeats itself.  I recently came across an article that discusses an idea put forward by Dr. Igor Linkov, that the way in which Venice handled the bubonic plague in the 14th century holds a lesson on how to even mitigate modern threats such as climate change and the fresh outbreak of ebola.  When the bubonic plague hit Europe in the late 1340s, Venice was a hub of many trade routes into both central Europe and Asia.  The Venetians initially tried to mitigate what they believed to be the threat with traditional risk management such as prayer and rituals, they ultimately started to utilize what people currently call resilience management.  Instead of trying to target a poorly understood risk, authorities focused on managing physical movement, social interactions and data collection for the city as a system.  This included inspection, quarantine stations on nearby islands, quarantine periods and wearing protective clothing.  Although such actions were too late to stop the disease’s initial devastation, thanks to the efforts, Venice continued to flourish, experiencing only sporadic episodes of plague afterwards.  In other parts of southern Europe, such as Greece, similar epidemics continued for centuries.

Michael Weilert MD Bubonic Plague
While the Bubonic Plague hit southern Europe hard, the Venetians were able to effectively combat it.

As the world tries to deal with the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Linkov and his colleagues are trying to learn from the Venetians in resilience management.  In the case of Ebola, economic and cultural factors make risk management difficult.  It might take time to transform deeply rooted traditions that contribute to the spread of Ebola, health experts and national leaders could respond to the re-emergence of the disease.  Resilience management addresses the ability of a complex system, such as a city or community, to prepare, absorb, recover and ultimately adapt to unexpected threats.  Resilience management could be an excellent guide to effectively dealing with the current Ebola outbreak in Africa, as well as other issues such as population growth and the impacts of global climate change, according to Linkov.  Much like Venetian officials did some centuries earlier, approaching resilience at the system level provides a way to deal with the unknown and unquantifiable threats we are facing more and more frequently.