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The way in which the Italian city of Venice dealt with the outbreak of the plague in the fourteenth century holds lessons on how to even mitigate the consequences of today’s emerging threats, like climate change, terrorism and highly infectious or drug-resistant diseases. So says Dr. Igor Linkov of the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center, and a visiting professor of the Ca Foscari University in Italy. Linkov led an article on resilience management appearing in the journal Environment Systems and Decisions.
Venice was the hub of many trade routes into central Europe, and in 1347 became the epicenter of a plague epidemic. While Venetians initially attempted to mitigate what they believed to be the threat—God, vampires, etc.—by enacting traditional risk management like prayer and rituals, they eventually began to utilize what we would now call resilience management.
Instead of trying to target a poorly understood risk, state authorities focused on managing physical movement, social interactions, and data collection for the city as a system. The authors write:
First, they introduced the concepts of Lazaretto (isolation in space) and Quarantine (isolation in time). In previous centuries in Europe, leper colonies, called lazarets, had been established. The Venetian lazarettos were often on islands outside of the city. To combat the plague, officials stopped incoming ships at outer islands while they evaluated the health of the occupants. The plague continued to flare up throughout Europe for many centuries. Over this time, city official refined their methods, adding extensive interviews, inspections of ships, and disinfection of cloth goods with vinegar. In time, this waiting period was extended to 40 days, the number from which the Latin quarantine derives. In a separate effort, doctors, noting the horrible skin sores and strong odor of decay surrounding the victims, first reduced contact with the sick by wearing long coats and gloves, and using a rod or cane to examine patients when possible. In later centuries, inferring that not only physical contact between sick and healthy individuals, but also contact with the foul air surrounding the sick contributed to the spread of the disease, doctors began to wear long beaked masks containing vinegar or aromatic herbs in an attempt to purify the air they breathed.
Although these actions were too late to stop the disease’s initial devastation, thanks to the cumulative efforts over several hundred years, Venice continued to flourish, experiencing only sporadic episodes of plague thereafter, while in Greece and southern Europe, similar epidemics raged for centuries.
“Venice’s success illustrates that there are important differences between managing risks and managing resilience,” the authors conclude. “Venetian measures changed the physical domain by altering movement of people and goods, changed the social domain by altering the nature of interactions between sick and healthy, changed the information domain by monitoring disease propagation and tracking the source and paths of ships arriving at their ports, which in turn changed the cognitive domain to implement rules and processes to better manage and adapt to the threat.”
As the world grapples with the current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, Linkov and his colleagues see opportunities to learn from the Venetians in resilience management. In the case of Ebola, economic and cultural factors make risk management difficult. While it will take time to transform deeply rooted traditions that contribute the spread of the Ebola virus, health experts and national leaders may be able to realize improvements by bolstering the ability of other parts of the system to respond to 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 adapt to unexpected threats.
“Resilience management can be a guide to dealing with the current Ebola outbreak in Africa, and others like it, as well as other issues like population growth and the impacts of global climate change,” believes Linkov. “Similar to what the officials of Venice did centuries ago, approaching resilience at the system level provides a way to deal with the unknown and unquantifiable threats we are facing at an increasing frequency.”
The article “Risk and Resilience Lessons from Venice,” can be found in Environment Systems and Decisions, Volume 34, Issue 3 (2014). You can access the article via Springer.com.