On Friday, January 31, the WHO declared the new coronavirus a global health emergency. By now, the virus has reached every region in mainland China and continues to spread outside China as well. Evacuation and quarantine operations of hundreds of foreign nationals from China are underway. Moreover, several countries reacted to the emergency by restricting flight connections to and from China.
Although the pandemic fears and tensions rise—not that downplaying any risks would be a good idea—it is also clear that scientists do not know a great deal about this virus. There is still no clarity on how easily the virus spreads from person to person, how deadly it is and how long the incubation period is… Yet, it is certain that in today’s interconnected world, with frequent business and leisure travel, an outbreak of such a virus anywhere in the world becomes an international matter. On a positive side, the same interconnectedness of the world means that we are equipped to handle global health issues better than ever before.
The notion of interconnectedness and its facilitation of contagion of any sort has been well researched by Drs. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. In their fascinating examination of social networks, Christakis and Fowler argue for the impact of human connections not only in terms of biological contagion, but also for contagion of social behaviours, ideas, political views, emotions and more. As if doubling down on the notions of the old saying “Show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are”, in his intriguing TED talk, Dr. Christakis explains that obesity, for example, can be seen as another ‘epidemic’ spreading from person to person, because having an obese friend increases the risk of becoming obese yourself. Moreover, it is not just your friend’s obesity that increases your risk of obesity, even your friend’s friend, and your friend’s friend’s friend can impact you. Bringing positive examples, the same logic applies to contagion of healthy behaviors or happiness. As the researchers explain, people in social networks create clusters of similar traits for several reasons, such as induction of behaviors (e.g. I eat less healthy, you eat less healthy), being exposed to similar factors (e.g. lack of healthy eating options), and just sticking together because of initial similarities (e.g. I spend time with you, as you are similar to me). Dr. Christakis thinks of social networks as living organisms, which can be studied and have a life of their own, becoming more than the sum of the included individuals. Being embedded in such networks means we move along and within these organisms and perhaps should reconsider the notion of our complete independency as individuals?!
Although this proposition might at first compromise our sense of self-determination, control and choice, Christakis and Fowler urge us to think of connectedness rather as a good thing. Networks are our valuable social capital and their benefits outweigh the costs, otherwise as humans we wouldn’t strive for connections, right? In the aforementioned TED talk, Nicholas Christakis makes the point that social networks persist because something good and valuable flows through them! Yet, we also need to nourish these social connections in order to sustain the spread of valuable resources. It is true that the current dangers of the coronavirus point to the costs of the world’s interconnectedness, but the increased awareness and social action on environmental issues, human rights and alike are also to be attributed to the rippling effects of social networks.
Thinking about global mobility, the potential of social networks becomes even more promising to me. The ease with which we can create international social networks today implies a lot of potential for good ideas and practices from any part of the world to spread and become contagious. For example, returning to the world of international business, research by Markus Pudelko and Anne-Wil Harzing (2007) demonstrates that even in domains that are bound by such as human resource management, companies are often tempted to adopt global best practices, irrespective of their origin, than always try to localize or adopt rules set by headquarters.
All in all, we are embedded in social networks and we are to some extent subject to whatever flows through the network. Yet, each of us shapes the network as well. As Christakis and Fowler put it, ‘everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network…’. Quite a responsibility, isn’t it?!