As the world grapples with the worst economic downturn in decades and the possibility of a flu pandemic, a growing body of research suggests the complexity of the modern global economy may make us more vulnerable than ever to catastrophe.
Analysts point out that when the Black Death plague hit Europe in the 14th century, killing around a third of the population, society did not collapse, because economic and social systems were relatively simple and so insulated from shocks.
By contrast, a plague that hit the Roman empire in the 2nd century, with a similar death rate, caused chaos - Roman society was much more complex and economically advanced.
In modern society, if key nodes are taken out by disease, the impact could be magnified exponentially. The “nodes” could be people essential to the functioning of society and the economy - doctors, truck drivers, engineers, port workers.
And just as with financial crisis, herd behaviour, panic and the spread of inaccurate or incomplete information could provide negative feedback loops, making the catastrophe even worse.