Updated: Apr 4, 2020
What we can learn from decisive leadership. In this edition of the Safety Improvement Group blog, I am exploring the similarities between the black plague of the 1300s and COVID-19 of the 21st century and what ordinary people and leaders should do in unprecedented times to lead through a crisis.
Reflecting over the first week of #NZLockdown what struck me most is my children and the thought of how they are coping with Covid-19. I hear them running and screaming Corona, Corona you got Corona! Whilst spraying each other with water. From my own childhood and now my own children, when they were a few years younger, I can hear the children's voices in my head, singing;
Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Another version, apparently the American version of this rhyme goes like this;
Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down
In my mind's eye, I hear laughter and see a collapsed maul of children, frolicking. Jumping up on the trampoline just to collapse again. Joyful times. Of course, historians believe that Ring-a-ring o' roses has it's origins in not so joyful times, going back to the mid-1300s
Ring around the Rosie according to the literature refers to a rosy rash caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, better known as the black plague. In an attempt to ward off the pestilence as it was called. People hold posies of herbs. (a posy is a small bouquet of flowers or herbs.) Off course this didn't work for the pest and over the next 5 years, millions of people would die. In fact, according to the history channel, approximately 20 million people succumbed of the plaque in Europe.
Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe—almost one-third of the continent’s population.
What did work though was the ring around the rosie. Which in my mind means to isolate and to stay at home, to keep in your bubble or better known as lockdown.
There are many references been made to forms of isolation during this period across Europe, in some cases, harbours were closed off for months and years. The first account of legislative measures being imposed to isolate the disease appears in the archives of the city of Dubrovnik a city on the Adriatic Sea in southern Croatia. The Major Council of Dubrovnik passed a law on 27 July 1377, it reads
"Those who come from plague-infested areas shall not enter [Ragusa] or its district unless they spend a month on the islet of Mrkan or in the town of Cavtat, for the purpose of disinfection.”
According to Tomic, author of Expelling the Plague some historians considers this quarantine as one of the highest achievements of medieval medicine. Unfortunately, these measures alone were not enough to curb the spread of the deadly disease as was proven when two more waves hit the city in 1391 and 1397. It simply was impossible to keep Ragusa isolated for extended periods without full economic collapse of the city. Dr Jane Stevens Crawshaw author of Plague Hospitals believe that the lockdown served another purpose; keeping order.
“There are risks with any sort of epidemic of social breakdown, widespread panic, or complacency, which can be just as dangerous,”
At the time of writing Dubrovnik Airport is in lockdown since the 19th of March 2020 this follows the first case of COVID-19. The Airport according to The Dubrovnik Times is closed until April 15th and the future looks bleak that air traffic will resume in the next couple of months. It must be mentioned that on 22 March 2020 Croatia was hit by a 5.5 Earthquake on the Richter scale killing a 15-year-old girl, a sobering thought of the importance of emergency preparedness and response. At the same time as the Earthquake, Croatia’s COVID-19 crisis management team said that a ban on travelling inside the country, from town to town, would be imposed as an additional restrictive measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
All over the World, Countries are in COVID-19 - Lockdown, some countries are seeing the early signs of success. Others like Italy and Spain at the time of writing are overwhelmed with the health system struggling to cope with the demands. 3 April 2020 marked the grim milestone of over a million people infected with the Coronavirus worldwide and over 50000 deaths. Almost a 100% increase from the week before, the virus is doubling weekly. New York City is buckling under the pressures on the health system. Many countries waited too long but there are others who acted swiftly.
In times of crisis you should act quickly and swiftly that is the message of Dr Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization talking about his experience with Ebola. Follow this link for a 1:20 minute masterclass in emergency management by Dr Ryan speaking in a WHO media briefing on Mar 15, 2020.
"If you have to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection ... The greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure." Dr Michael Ryan
Two World Leaders who responded swiftly are Jacinda Ardern Prime Minister of New Zealand and Cyril Ramophosa President of South Africa. Both countries acted early, only time will tell how effective the lockdown will be in fighting COVID-19.
On 14 March 2020, Jacinda Ardern closed the borders of New Zealand almost a week before going into full lockdown saying that these measures are some of the World's toughest border restrictions and that the government are pre-viewing plans to limit large events.
"In conclusion, we have two choices as a nation: one is to let Covid-19 roll on and simply to brace. The second is to go hard on measures to keep it out and stamp it out," Jacinda Ardern
A week later on 21 March, my family were walking along the beach in Paihia, New Zealand on a well-deserved break away for my wife's birthday when the WhatsApp message come through from friends simply saying watch the news Jacinda is making an important announcement. As we lay on the bed in the lodge where we were staying, listening to the PMs address we realised the enormity of what Jacinda Ardern is saying.
The Prime Minister announced the 4 Covid-19 Alert Levels introduced by New Zealand. It didn't took us long as a family to although we were only in Alert Level 1 (which allowed for travel) to cut our holiday short and to return to our home in Auckland where we have been in our "bubble" ever since.
"I ask that New Zealand does what we do so well. We are a country that is creative and community-minded."We know how to rally. We know how to look after one another. "Be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid -19." Jacinda Ardern
You don't need to be a prime minister to make good leadership decisions, the decisions that we ordinary people make in the following weeks will decide how our story end. Are we simply going to roll along or are we going to stamp this out? New Zealand has a plan, it may not be perfect but it is a decisive plan, to go hard and to go early to beat COVID-19.
So you could decide to stay in your bubble or you could decide to break the rules. Perhaps that is the leadership each of us can demonstrate to our children during this time. They will remember it forever. What were the decisions our parents made during the COVID-19 Pandemic?
At work, it is the same, how do we handle a crisis, are we focusing on things that make a difference or are we focusing on fluff? Are we following the rules or are we bending them in the name of production whilst sacrificing the isolation requirements and lastly, are we kind?
Simon Armitage Laureate winner wrote this poem about COVID-19 going back to the plaque, this time in Eyam, England set in the 17th century.
Lockdown by Simon Armitage
And I couldn’t escape the waking dream of infected fleas
in the warp and weft of soggy cloth
by the tailor’s hearth
in ye olde Eyam. Then couldn’t un-see
the Boundary Stone, that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes,
thimbles brimming with vinegar wine purging the plagued coins.
Which brought to mind the sorry story of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre,
star-crossed lovers on either side of the quarantine line
whose wordless courtship spanned the river till she came no longer.
But slept again, and dreamt this time
of the exiled yaksha sending word to his lost wife on a passing cloud,
a cloud that followed an earthly map of camel trails and cattle tracks,
streams like necklaces, fan-tailed peacocks, painted elephants,
embroidered bedspreads of meadows and hedges,
bamboo forests and snow-hatted peaks, waterfalls, creeks,
the hieroglyphs of wide-winged cranes and the glistening lotus flower after rain,
the air hypnotically see-through, rare,
the journey a ponderous one at times, long and slow but necessarily so.
Poetry “asks us just to focus, and think, and be contemplative”. Says Simon Armitage
COVID-19 may be unprecedented but it will not be the last pandemic. There will be more, how we manage this pandemic will decide how we get out of this and how we respond to the next one.
For the Safety Industry, I believe this crisis will mean good things, Safety professionals will play more prominent roles in the future in preparing organisations to function through a crisis. Please follow this link to my article what good health and safety look like or for a freed download of the Safety Improvement Group Management System.
"Never waste a good crisis."Winston Churchill,
Meaning to use this time to your advantage, use it to learn and prepare.
Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377-1533 (Volume 43) (McGill-Queen’s/Associated ... the History of Medicine, Health, and Society)