Lessons from the past can help us deal with today’s emerging threats like drug- resistance, infectious disease outbreaks, climate change and even terrorism, say experts who studied the response of Italy’s city, Venice, when it was visited by the plague in the 14th century.

The approach the Venetians took is an example of resilience management, write the authors of a study on the subject published in the journal Environment Systems and Decisions.

Lead author Igor Linkov, of the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center and a visiting professor at the Ca Foscari University in Italy, says:

Resilience management can be a guide to dealing with the current Ebola outbreak in Africa, and others.”

Venice was an important maritime power and commercial hub for trade into central Europe, when it was struck by the deadly plague in 1347.

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In the wake of the plague in 14th century Venice, authorities focused on the movements of people, social interactions and surveillance to manage the public health threat.

At first, the Venetians responded by intensifying prayers and rituals, but when that did not work, their efforts took the form of what experts today call resilience management.

The authorities did not focus on the disease itself, which they did not understand, but on what they could manage: the movements of people, social interactions and surveillance.

For example, they instituted a system of inspection, set up quarantine periods with isolation stations on nearby islands, and issued protective clothing.

These measures did not stop the plague from killing many Venetians at the time, but they probably ensured their city experienced only sporadic outbreaks in the following centuries while epidemics raged in Greece and southern Europe:

“[…] a set of systemic actions across the social, economic, and transportation networks of the city taken by officials and doctors eventually slowed and arguably stopped the spread of the disease,” note the authors.

Drawing parallels with the current Ebola outbreak, Prof. Linkov points to economic and cultural factors that impede risk management in West Africa.

It will take time to overcome the deeply rooted traditions that are helping the spread of the virus and the local people’s mistrust in what the authorities are trying to do to contain it.

But there are things that health experts and national leaders can do to bolster other parts of the system to be more resilient to re-emergence of the disease.

To apply the principles of resilience management, you have to view the city or community as a complex system so it can prepare, absorb, recover and adapt to unexpected threats, says Prof. Linkov, who adds:

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.”

He and his colleagues also believe that resilience management can be “a guide to addressing current issues of population growth and rising sea level in modern day Venice and across the globe.”

The concept of resilience is gaining ground with organizations working to reduce risks in communities affected by disasters. It is also framing thinking about sustainable futures in an environment of growing risk and uncertainty.

A 2012 report commissioned by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) concludes that a safe and resilient community:

  1. Assesses, manages and monitors its risks, learns new skills and builds on experience.
  2. Identifies problems, sets priorities and acts.
  3. Maintains links with external organizations that can provide support, goods and services when needed.
  4. Has strong housing, transport, power, water and sanitation systems and is able to maintain, repair and renovate them.
  5. Manages its natural assets by recognizing their value, protecting, enhancing and maintaining them.
  6. Has diverse employment opportunities, income and financial services and the resourcefulness and flexibility to respond proactively to change.

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned how pioneering research of the late 19th century inspired the method used to develop the experimental drug ZMapp, which may have saved the lives of two American missionaries struck down by Ebola in West Africa.