Consider agriculture. For thousands of years food production relied on human labour, and about 90 per cent of people worked in farming. Today in developed countries this is no longer the case. In the US, only about 1.5 per cent of people work on farms, but that’s enough not just to feed everyone at home but also to make the US a leading food exporter. Almost all the farm work is done by machines, which are immune to disease. Lockdowns therefore have only a small impact on farming.
Imagine a wheat field at the height of the Black Death. If you tell the farmhands to stay home at harvest time, you get starvation. If you tell the farmhands to come and harvest, they might infect one another. What to do?
Now imagine the same wheat field in 2020. A single GPS-guided combine can harvest the entire field with far greater efficiency — and with zero chance of infection. While in 1349 an average farmhand reaped about 5 bushels per day, in 2014 a combine set a record by harvesting 30,000 bushels in a day. Consequently Covid-19 had no significant impact on global production of staple crops such as wheat, maize and rice.
To feed people it is not enough to harvest grain. You also need to transport it, sometimes over thousands of kilometres. For most of history, trade was one of the main villains in the story of pandemics. Deadly pathogens moved around the world on merchant ships and long-distance caravans. For example, the Black Death hitchhiked from east Asia to the Middle East along the Silk Road, and it was Genoese merchant ships that then carried it to Europe. Trade posed such a deadly threat because every wagon needed a wagoner, dozens of sailors were required to operate even small seagoing vessels, and crowded ships and inns were hotbeds of disease.
In 2020, global trade could go on functioning more or less smoothly because it involved very few humans. A largely automated present-day container ship can carry more tons than the merchant fleet of an entire early modern kingdom. In 1582, the English merchant fleet had a total carrying capacity of 68,000 tons and required about 16,000 sailors. The container ship OOCL Hong Kong, christened in 2017, can carry some 200,000 tons while requiring a crew of only 22.
True, cruise ships with hundreds of tourists and aeroplanes full of passengers played a major role in the spread of Covid-19. But tourism and travel are not essential for trade. The tourists can stay at home and the business people can Zoom, while automated ghost ships and almost human-less trains keep the global economy moving. Whereas international tourism plummeted in 2020, the volume of global maritime trade declined by only 4 per cent.
Yuval Harari (Interview in der Financial Times)