Despite how it might feel for many, the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak is not the first time that humanity has dealt with such a serious health crisis. With the information technology we have at our disposal, we’ve been able to stifle the infection somewhat, with more innovation happening all the time. The same has happened at different times throughout history, so to keep our spirits up, we figured it would make sense to discuss how the darkest times also brought great progress.
Many advancements in technology have been direct responses to the health concerns of the time, and we aren’t exaggerating when we say that these advancements have historically been the ones to trigger massive societal and cultural changes. Today, we have a virus completely dictating the way that we interact with one another: necessitating social distancing, halting travel, shutting down businesses, and otherwise isolating us as we all work to avoid becoming another casualty. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are now the busiest places, and the economy has taken a major hit.
Having said all that, it is important to remember that humanity has seen this kind of thing before, and this almost certainly won’t be the last time we contend with such a disease.
In fact, a plague was responsible for one of the most famous medical traditions, the Hippocratic Oath. In 429 BC, the Plague of Athens killed 100,000 people and fundamentally shifted the city-state’s perspective of disease. It was afterwards that Hippocrates composed his oath for physicians, that still today holds high ceremonial significance.
This isn’t the only example of how disease has stimulated and inspired advancement, either.
Also known as the Black Death, this plague was the worst pandemic that humanity has had to endure throughout its entire history. Over its 22 years, 14th century Europe saw half of its total population die of the disease. While we don’t have an official death toll, it took a full 200 years for the population damage to be undone.
However, innovation blossomed as a result. With fewer people left to work, work became harder for a longer period of time. This brought more value to human labor, increasing pay for the working class and giving them more power. Land ownership spread, as did education and literacy rates. In this way, the Black Death was arguably responsible for the era we know as the Renaissance, a period we literally refer to as the rebirth of culture.
More complicated clocks were developed, as were spectacles and firearms. Hospital facilities grew as the viewpoint on healthcare shifted from faith-based to be more secular and scientific. These innovations and so many others exploded into society throughout this period of creativity and invention.
Better known by its acronym, SARS, this variety of coronavirus first appeared in China and swiftly spread to Hong Kong. Before COVID-19, it was viewed as the worst modern disease outbreak. As global commerce was just coming into the fore, SARS promptly shut it down, ultimately costing an estimated $40 billion.
With the need to keep SARS in check and minimize exposure so that it wouldn’t spread across the globe (as we have seen today), innovation once again benefitted. While China did not use the Internet for much before SARS, it quickly became the solution to multiple complications. eCommerce, originally born in the US and European countries, became the go-to solution for China, the SARS coronavirus necessitating increased website and application development.
Considering how much we rely on the Internet for today, it’s strange to think how much different the world would likely operate without SARS (as terrible as that sounds). It is very likely that the Internet would have taken much longer to develop into the tool that we know today.
Unfortunately, we now find ourselves in the situation we do. Even in the midst of it, there are already signs of similar rates of innovation and cultural shifts. Information technology has allowed doctors from around the globe to collaborate with one another and pool their research. Thanks to IT, solid health practices have been devised, and with any luck, we are in the process of finding a cure… and that’s just in the healthcare arena.
Many businesses around the world have found themselves capable of sustaining their operations with cloud technology and remote access tools enabling many employees to continue working from the relative safety of their homes. As this approach continues on, it is effectively guaranteed that collaboration-based software (as well as the other business software critical for their operations) is sure to improve to enable the growing remote workforce.
Another tool that is coming into the fore in a big way is the video conferencing solution. While many businesses used it pretty sparingly before, it has been quickly adopted by many as a means to keep more of their staff involved in their processes.
Other applications for delivery services like Amazon and Instacart have seen their incoming orders explode, as people are more commonly ordering their necessary toiletries and groceries to avoid risking exposure. These companies have found that the faster they can shift their services to meet this demand, the better they are viewed by the larger public and are used more often.
Innovation has always been key to both our survival as a species and our development as a global culture. While the circumstances are obviously not ideal, we should find some comfort in the fact that our reaction to crises isn’t to run and hide (in a manner of speaking), but to adapt and improve to suit whatever the new normal becomes.
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