The fluid dynamics of human movement can be a fascinating thing to observe from the outside. It can be a stressful thing to observe from the inside.
Being a strongly introverted person, I often find myself instinctively gravitating toward the walls and out of densely populated areas. I had never previously examined these motivations. However, after some recent studying for unrelated reasons, I find that the root of this instinct is preservational.
There is a common phenomenon called a “crush” that occurs when you bring together massive crowds of people and introduce the right conditions. The right proportion of mass and motion can cause devastating effects on anything or anyone trapped in front of the weight.
The negative outcome is not inherently motivationally driven, but rather conditionally so. And it doesn’t matter if the crowd is moving from excitement or panic. The crushing effect is indiscriminate.
The Victoria Hall Disaster
One terrible example of this was a crush that happened in 1883 in the United Kingdom, the Victoria Hall disaster.
After a variety show for children, there were prizes and candies being handed out in a lower level of the theater. Eleven-hundred kids moved into a large stairway. The door at the bottom was locked partially closed to allow only one to pass through at a time. The restricted flow quickly became a choke point. 183 children were crushed to death by the mass of the crowd.
This serves as a stark reminder of the huge effect small actions can have en masse.
The Station Nightclub Fire
Another tragedy that has been on my mind of late was the Station Nightclub Fire back in 2003. When I started my current job back in 2015, I was doing OSHA required training. As a class, we watched a video that was recorded from inside the club.
A small nightclub in Rhode Island brought in the band Great White to perform. More than four hundred people crowded in to see them play. In a display of poor judgment, the band used fireworks indoors for the show. Acoustic foam treatment on the walls quickly caught fire. The crowd surged into the narrow hallway that led to the exit and several people fell. A crush formed in the doorway.
The fire was a very real and immediate threat. However, the conditions of the crush made the human death toll far worse than it likely would have been otherwise. 100 people succumbed to the fire and smoke.
The Bigger Picture
The common theme in both situations was decisions that didn’t take into account the bigger picture.
It is so easy to lose sight of the consequences of an action in a crowd. A small push on someone ahead of you can have a ripple effect on someone else 50 meters away.
Just so, the person who locked a door at the end of a stairway partially shut to allow only one child through at a time never intended harm. They simply didn’t take into consideration an almost unimaginable effect.
I can’t tell you how many articles and videos I’ve seen from epidemiologists and statisticians about exponential growth in the last few weeks. This topic is right in my wheelhouse; I’m a bit of a numbers nerd, and exponential growth is something I talk about pretty regularly. What I find worrying is that all of these articles are solely focused on “flattening the curve” of coronavirus. Yet they pay no consideration to the costs of the response they advocate. In these cases, the flattened curve is the end-all-be-all.
Decision-Making in a Vacuum
Scientific theory tends to work great in a vacuum. It often becomes far more slippery as you apply it in the ever-changing conditions of the real world, however.
In a vacuum, we can never spend enough to solve this problem. This is because there is no completely effective solution to this problem.
This has become an emotionally charged conversation as we fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. We are forming strong opinions long before fully considering that there might be important details we are missing.
We have already seen the beginning effects of the human crush through these early stages. Panic-stricken people rushed to stores to buy all the toilet paper, cleaning supplies and everything else. Panic-stricken investors began selling everything they could, moving massive amounts of money out of investments and into cash. Trillions of dollars of wealth have been wiped out in a matter of days.
These effects could be short-term and everything could return to normal in a matter of months. However, at this point, we still seem to be amping up our response.
I’m not here to say that there isn’t a fire in the nightclub. The reports on this pandemic from the media, politicians, and the World Health Organization have given me multiple cases of whiplash. But I do believe that this is a legitimate threat and we need to take responsible measures. We have to consider efficacy, sustainability and the global consequences of our actions.
Economics is not an ethereal, intangible concept; on a global scale, it very quickly becomes a matter of life-and-death. More than nine million people die from starvation and related illnesses every year in the world; of that number far too many are children. That is more than the people that die from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
And bear in mind: this is all under conditions of prosperity unlike any other time in human history.
Globally we produce more than enough food to feed everyone in the world; so nobody needs to die for us to feed everyone, but we must continue to improve global economic efficiency. Social distancing introduced extraordinary inefficiencies into our economy far beyond the local level. Now we are escalating to mandated sheltering in place.
Why are we accepting as a given the economic impact of this action? Are an economic depression and massive increases in economic inefficiency an inevitable and secondary concern?
There is no economic environment which we can look to in human history before the 20th century for an adequate comparison. We have never sustained a global population anywhere near this level nor have we seen such rapid growth.
I cannot begin to imagine the immediate consequences of ramping down production globally for months as we hide in our homes; nor can I foresee the effect this may have on the most efficient and productive farmers in the world who are already facing distressed conditions.
A global depression will be devastating to everyone, but far and away the most hard-hit will be those who are already malnourished in the world. Estimates vary, but according to worldhunger.org there are 815 million people who are chronically undernourished in the world.
Millions of lives are hanging in the balance as we consider how we will react to this disease.
We run the risk of exacerbating the biggest threat facing humanity today to lessen a far less statistically significant problem. We must answer this question immediately: Will our response to COVID-19 run the risk of resulting in more deaths in the next ten years than the disease itself?
I am not offering a false dilemma. I believe we have already worked out an aggressive response that will lessen the mortality rate of COVID-19 and strain on our hospitals while perhaps narrowly avoiding plunging us into an economic depression.
At-risk populations should shelter in place and the rest of the population should continue practicing social distancing; increase PSAs on the subject; reduce the number of large gatherings; distance yourself from at-risk loved ones for however long it takes.
We should, however, do what we can to retain some sense of normalcy. No amount of printed stimulus money is going to fix the economic realities of hundreds of millions of people all leaving work at once. And we must keep global industries producing.