This is not a drill

There’s a fine line in reporting on a crisis, with an obvious journalistic need to provide information, but without spreading panic. Nonetheless, with the Covid-19 strain of the Corona virus continuing to spread globally it’s time to assess its impact on the graphics and industrial printing markets.

Large parts of China are still under lock-down, while the Italian government has just locked down its entire country, telling people “Don’t travel, don’t socialise”. Here in Britain, the chief medical officer has warned that this virus is likely to turn into an epidemic and right across Europe there is a realisation that this is going to get worse before it gets better. At time of writing, this virus has reached more than 80 countries, infected over 100,000 people and led to more than 3,400 deaths. However, these numbers include some 55,000 people who were previously infected but have since recovered. 

What is a Corona virus?

Corona Virus is a generic name for a group of viruses that can cause various diseases in mammals and birds, and which in humans can lead to respiratory tract infections. The common cold is a form of Corona Virus, as are the earlier outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome or MERS. This particular strain is officially called SARS CoV-2 and the disease that it causes is called CoVid-19. It spreads far more easily than SARS but the mortality rate is much lower.

Some people have dismissed this as simply another flu, but it is far more deadly, with a mortality rate of roughly 3.4 percent as against 0.1 percent for flu, according to the World Health Organisation or WHO. However, it’s highly probable that a lot more people have been infected and that many of these will recover and never be included in official figures so that the actual mortality rate may be closer to 1 percent, according to a report from the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London.

CoVid-19 attacks the respiratory system with typical symptoms being coughing and a fever with shortness of breath, which can lead to pneumonia. For a small number of patients it can disrupt the body’s immune system, causing it to attack healthy cells as well as those infected, leading to significant organ damage.

The likelihood is that this virus will run its course by the summer when the weather picks up and most of us will be left wondering what the fuss was all about. However, it’s possible the virus may mutate into something more dangerous, or may become endemic in humans and re-emerge every winter, or that it may survive warmer weather and continue to persist past the summer. 

Don’t Panic

This virus is mostly spread through coughing and sneezing. The pathogen that causes it can survive on hard surfaces for up to nine hours, but regular washing of hands does appear to be fairly effective at countering it. Moreover, it appears that you would need to be in close contact with someone infected for over 15 minutes to catch it, so you’re unlikely to pick it up from passers-by.

In most cases, around 80 percent, CoVid-19 is similar to a mild dose of flu, though it can cause severe respiratory problems in around 15 percent of people, becoming critical for a further 5 percent of patients and can be fatal for roughly half of critical sufferers. Elderly people and those with pre-existing health conditions are at most risk, with children under ten significantly less affected. People can become infectious fairly quickly after picking up the virus, though it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear; this incubation period can be up to 28 days though it’s most commonly around 5 days. 

Panic buying has led to empty shelves in Supermarkets, especially for items like soap and hand sanitisers.

In Britain, the government casually announced that this virus would continue to spread and inevitably infect many thousands of people, and then seemed surprised that everyone emptied the supermarket shelves in panic in case they had to endure a two-week isolation period at home. Now, we have to put up with the bizarre spectacle of government ministers instructing people on how to wash their hands, though this same government is responsible for the massive cutbacks to our health and public services that have undermined our ability to cope with this epidemic. 

Our economy is underpinned by so-called ‘gig’ workers, people working hand to mouth with no basic employment rights, and including many hospital cleaners, carers and nurses. This exploitation of workers has allowed some companies to reap profits but now threatens the public health since these people simply can’t afford to self-isolate themselves, even, if they succumb to CoVid-19, let alone simply as a precaution. 

The government claims that the NHS can cope with the Covid-19 outbreak while newspapers are full of reports from the doctors and nurses on the ground saying that the system is on the brink of collapse. And, as if the outlook were not bleak enough, Boris Johnson, who seems most comfortable when clowning around in front of the media, is in charge. 

The situation has led to a number of trade shows being cancelled, including the London Book Fair and Sign and Digital 2020. For now, Fespa has postponed rather than cancelled its Global print expo in Madrid, though it’s difficult to see the show going ahead this year. There’s a significant amount of organisational work involved in putting on a big show like Fespa, not only for the organisers but also for the exhibitors who have to transport staff and equipment to the venue. The first half of this year will be dominated by the CoronaVirus crisis and a show in the second half of the year would risk having a knock-on effect to next year’s event in Munich. There was a palpable sense of relief from the exhibitors when it was postponed. Those that I’ve spoken to since expect the show to be cancelled and would prefer a definite statement so that they could look at limiting their costs and trying to claim against their insurance. 

It’s probably too early to think about postponing Drupa but the very fact that people are talking about this now, when we should be finalising our plans for the show, underlines the uncertainty over it. This especially affects exhibitors who are currently building presses and making plans to ship them to Germany. Drupa is first and foremost an opportunity for vendors to demonstrate and sell their equipment so anything that impacts on visitor numbers is going to be a concern. And who is going to be making travel plans now? Especially from China and the Far East, which is an increasingly important market for many press vendors. 

But postponing such a large show for a few months or even a year will be difficult. That said, Messe Dusseldorf has already cancelled a slew of shows from March and April and will soon have to make a decision on InterPack and eventually on Drupa. Some vendors have already done this, with several pre-drupa press briefings cancelled while Chili Publish has gone further and pulled out of Drupa 2020 altogether, citing fears over the Corona Virus outbreak.

It’s impossible to overstate just how important Drupa is to the printing industry.

Panic Now.

The rapid spread of this infection has shown up the weakness in many economies, and in particular our reliance on a global supply chain and just-in-time manufacturing model. Many countries have faced an awkward choice over the last couple of weeks as to whether or not to restrict movements of goods and people to limit the spread of the virus at the risk of damaging their economies. Here in the UK there is talk that many companies may collapse, and indeed the FlyBe airline has already gone under. This points to a shocking lack of resilience in our economy that no amount of political blustering can hide.

In recent years we’ve seen ink prices rising, primarily due to shortages of raw materials from China so it’s inevitable that anything that affects production in China is going to have a further effect on prices. Many wide format substrates also originate from China and the Far East so prolonged factory shut downs will eventually affect the supply of these materials. The other issue will be spare parts, though most vendors will have enough stock to overcome a short period of disruption.

If there is a bright spot to having our economies on hold, it is that it gives us the opportunity to rethink how we organise those economies. Globalisation and connecting with other peoples around the world, should be a good thing. It should allow us to import more raw materials, to sell more of our products, and to work together to exchange ideas, develop better technologies and to raise standards. 

But too often globalisation is simply about richer countries chasing the cheapest labour costs, hollowing out our own economies in the process so that a small number of people can get richer. Outsourcing our manufacturing means transporting components and products over vast distances but this transport is itself one of the major causes of environmental damage. 

A better solution is to decentralise our production and to take advantage of our manufacturing technologies to produce more things closer to the point of purchase. This plays to the strengths of digital technologies for short run, highly customisable production. This applies particularly to textile printing, with inkjet being more sustainable than traditional manufacturing. But it can apply equally to other opportunities for industrial printing, as well as books, brochures and direct mail pieces. There is also a role for 3D printing, which is already used by companies such as HP to produce parts for printers, and which will allow us to quickly print spare parts close to where they are needed. This may lead to some costs rising, but is a price worth paying if it strengthens our economies, helps us to tackle climate change and improves our individual quality of life.

For now, all that we can do is hope that this disease is stopped in its tracks before many more people die. Many companies are going to lose a great deal of money, through lost orders and staff absences as well as falling share prices, and this will translate into higher prices and, for some, redundancies and loss of earnings. Ultimately, the economic consequences will affect far more people than just those unfortunate enough to catch CoVid-19. 

We can choose whether or not we let this be the legacy of this outbreak or take a different path, to consume and manufacture in a more sustainable way and to have a more robust economy. This is our mission, should we choose to accept it; it’s not impossible.

4 thoughts on “This is not a drill

  1. Hi Nessan, Nicely balanced and nuanced piece, better than 90% of the commentary out there.
    One thing… I think you mean ‘It’s impossible to overstate [not understate] just how important Drupa is to the printing industry.’
    Cheers
    Patrick

  2. Hi Nessan,

    very good summary of current events, without adding to the hysteria but pointing out the true flaws of our current global economy. It would truly be wonderful if leadership would rethink their strategies as far as decentralised production and local supply chains are concerned, but I gravely fear that after this, it will be back to business as usual, due to our almost religious adherence to eternal growth and short-term shareholder satisfaction. But, one should never lose hope.

    Stay safe and perhaps we can nod at each other or rub elbows at Drupa.
    Best, Oliver

    1. Hi Oliver,
      Thanks for commenting. You’re right on both counts: it will be back to business as usual once it’s all over; and we shouldn’t lose hope.
      Anyway, it would be good to meet up at Drupa.
      All the best,
      Nessan

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