Trade and travel in the time of epidemics

Hans-Joachim Voth in this voxeu piece says we need to think about trade and travel differently for goods and people.

Goods carry little diseases whereas people do:

The Covid crisis has prompted the question of how much mobility a globalised world can and should have. This column, taken from a VoxEU eBook, breaks the question down into two elements: Is a massive restriction of mobility desirable? And is it feasible at all? The free exchange of goods and capital does not have to be restricted; only very few diseases are transmitted by contaminated goods. On the other hand, while the free movement of people also contributes to the advantages of globalisation, it is far less important for production. Severe restrictions may well be desirable and justifiable, bringing to an end a half-century of ever-increasing individual mobility.

 It is not obvious that running the risk of coronavirus outbreaks every few years – or worse – is a price worth paying for multiple annual vacation trips to Paris and Bangkok, say. Severe restrictions may well be desirable and justifiable, bringing to an end a half-century of ever-increasing individual mobility. In addition, specific restrictions could be brought in.  

For countries where, for example, wild animals are regularly sold and eaten (such as China, until recently), the certification for travel could be withheld without restrictions; anyone who comes or returns from there must undergo a medical examination and possibly spend a few weeks in quarantine. This would not only build a virtual plague wall against the next major outbreak, it would also put pressure on health authorities around the world to restrict dangerous practices that allow pathogens to jump from one species to the next. Even if airlines, hoteliers and tour operators would suffer from such rules in the short term and would complain, the lesson from Wuhan should be that we need a broad discussion within and outside of academia about how much mobility is actually desirable.

He narrates interesting tales from history:

The ship, Grand Saint Antoine, had already come to the attention of the port authority of Livorno. A cargo ship from Lebanon loaded with expensive textiles, it reached the port of Marseille in 1720. The Health Commission had its doubts – the plague was widespread in the eastern Mediterranean. Like all ships from affected regions, the Grand Saint Antoine was placed in quarantine. Normally, the crew and the property would have had to stay on board for 40 days to rule out the possibility of an infectious disease. But a textile fair near Marseille, where the importing merchants hoped for rich business, would soon begin. Under pressure from the rich traders, the health agency changed its mind. The ship could be unloaded, the crew went to town.

After only a few days it was clear that changing the initial decision had been a mistake. The ship had carried the plague. Now the disease spread like a forest fire in the dry bush. The city authorities in Marseille could not cope with the number of deaths, with corpses piling up in the streets. 

The great plague of the late Middle Ages, in the years 1346-51, had also come to Europe via ports in the Mediterranean. As then, people tried to feel the danger of disease in Marseille. In contrast to the situation in the Middle Ages, they did not get very far. At the behest of the French king and the pope, a plague wall (Mur de Peste) was built in Provence. Tourists can still see parts of it today. The wall was over two meters high and the watchtowers were manned by soldiers. Those who wanted to climb over it were prevented from doing so by force. Although some individuals managed to escape, the last major outbreak of black death in Europe was largely confined to Marseille. While probably 100,000 people – about a third of the population – died in Marseille, the rest of Europe was spared the repeated catastrophe of 1350 when millions of people lost their lives. No medical miracle cure had saved Europe, but the effective intervention of a functioning state. 


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