Stagnation is Death
Life in the time of coronavirus feels positively medieval in some respects. A pandemic that comes seemingly out of nowhere, brought by travel and trade and spreading death in its wake. And yet we have learned so much, in such a short period of time.
We have developed a series of vaccines of remarkable efficacy, at least in the short-term, at a previously unimaginable speed. If former U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed seemed a typically bombastic piece of naming, it did nicely capture the mood, and the necessity.
We are far from through the pandemic, as the third wave enveloping much of Europe makes clear. Tragically, Hungary saw a new record daily death rate of 252 people on Tuesday (March 23), with the total for Wednesday (March 24) standing at 249 at the time of writing, according to the worldometers.info website, citing the government’s Hungarian-language koronavirus.gov.hu (those stats don’t appear to be on the English-language version, at least not in the same format). We do, though, have a viable way out of the pandemic through vaccination. The speed with which the pandemic laid our economies, if not our societies, low was humbling. In that sense, the coronavirus harks back to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, an unseen, unknown pathogen taking a modern society close to breaking point.
Where the analogy fails to hold is that, thankfully, we were not involved in a brutally destructive world war at the start of 2020. Neither did our grandparents and great grandparents vaccinate their way out of trouble. Spanish Flu seems to have dissipated over time, with successive waves becoming less deadly as they mutated to spread faster. It ceased to be a pandemic by the summer of 1920, probably because by then the global population had reach such a level of “heard immunity” (to use a phrase that became popular last spring) that it had become very hard for the virus to spread further, coupled with plenty of physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
One other significant difference between then and now is that, with the horrors of the war fresh in mind and the diversions of the Roaring ’20s all around to distract it, the world seemed happy simply to move on without fully understanding what had caused the Spanish Flu outbreak in the first place. Only much later was it discovered to be a strain of H1N1 bird flu that had jumped species from avian to human. In effect, Spanish Flu never went away, it is with us still today, but it is hard to imagine that science won’t continue to mine away at the COVID coalface this time round. After all technological and scientific progress are perhaps the key attributes of the 20th and 21st centuries, and we touch on that in the Special Report inside this issue: Manufacturing & New Technologies. Artificial Intelligence and robotics may seem like very modern science fiction (can you believe the Steven Spielberg film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” was released in 2001?), but they are very much science fact nowadays. Labor shortages meant digitization and automation were already trends driving the fourth industrial revolution, and have only accelerated during the current pandemic. One snippet jumped out at me in this issue, however, in our piece looking at how the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME) is attempting to keep itself at the cutting edge of this breakneck development. With Nokia, one of its many industrial partners, researchers and students at the university are working now to develop 5G technologies but will soon turn their attention to 6G. To quote Leonard I. Sweet, the American theologian and semiotician, “Change is life. Stagnation is death.”
This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of March 26, 2021.
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