February 1968: The shadow of R A Rendel, publicity manager for the Abbey National Building Society, in the guise of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Mr Rendel answers the fan mail sent to Holmes' address at 221b Baker Street, a site now occupied by the building society. (Photo by Peter Ruck/BIPs/Getty Images)
In his Sherlock Holmes books Arthur Conan Doyle, a trained physician, brilliantly applied deductive medical reasoning to crime fiction © Peter Ruck/BIPs/Getty Images

“What do you know, pray, of Tapanuli fever?” Sherlock Holmes asked Dr Watson in The Adventure of the Dying Detective. “I have learned so much during some recent researches which have a medico-criminal aspect.” As the world eases out of lockdown, Holmes’s medico-criminal research, or crime-fighting in general, hold many helpful lessons for the fight against Covid-19 — certainly more than the invocations of “war” so many world leaders have preferred.

There are many problems in declaring war on a virus — the biggest being that it raises the possibility of defeat. In March, Boris Johnson declared himself head of a “wartime government” while Donald Trump took on the mantle of “wartime president”. Since then, the UK prime minister has been hospitalised, and the US president has presided over a country with the world’s most virus-related deaths. In contrast, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has studiously avoided the term — and her peace-mongering country has had one of the best records in dealing with the virus.

Crime and disease share a common language. They both need other bodies to thrive. Cities can suffer “epidemics” of homicides, with “rashes” of street violence, or “outbreaks” of drug abuse. Scientists meanwhile use detective work to parse death statistics and follow clues to develop a vaccine. Covid-19 is not intelligent or organised in the same way as, say, China’s triad gangs. But it follows its own biological logic and has a “deceitful” character, as Italy’s deputy health minister Pierpaolo Sileri put it.

As the world returns to work, many feel uneasy about the threat to civil liberties of the heightened social vigilance and contact tracing needed to limit second outbreaks. Yet tracing is standard gear when fighting organised crime, another transnational network that grew with globalisation. Nobody sees anti-money laundering regulations or know-your-customer rules as a threat to liberty. A pragmatic balance is possible, as some recently reopened Asian companies have shown.

Crime fighting holds other general lessons. In both, centralised co-ordination helps. Thanks to the NHS, the UK runs the world’s largest trial of potential coronavirus treatments. As for crime, security agents often cite Colombia’s unified police command as one reason why the country brought its drug cartels to heel more effectively than Mexico has done. Successfully fighting organised crime also obviously requires well-resourced, front-line staff. Just as important, though, are the cultural norms that buttress their work. The rule of law finds its counterpart in public hygiene and health in determining society’s underlying conditions.

Most of all, fighting crime requires a mindset of never-ending struggle. The US may have crippled the Cosa Nostra, but organised crime is still alive in other manifestations. As for influenza, Hippocrates described its symptoms 2,500 years ago. Because the struggle is prolonged, fighting both requires honest appraisal. There is no silver bullet, knockout blow or cure-all technology. The idea that capturing an evil capo magically destroys a criminal network is akin to hoping for an all-conquering vaccine. Another capo or virus always arrives; after all, it has been only a decade since the last pandemic.

If crime is a useful parallel, what might success against Covid-19 look like? Most probably, a continuous series of trade-offs where criminality or disease is latent but controlled, and companies and governments devote a portion of their budgets to keeping it that way.

This need not be prohibitively expensive. The IT security software industry has annual revenues of about $250bn, paid by others as a routine cost of business. In the post-lockdown world, crime fighters will have an especially important role to play too. Large companies are more likely to survive the crisis than small ones. Vigilant trust busters will be needed to curb their monopoly powers.

If Covid-as-crime sounds too martial, there is an environmental alternative. In a seminal paper, Stergios Skaperdas, an economist, compared fighting organised crime to Holland’s struggle against the sea “painstakingly building dyke after dyke . . . while being prepared to be overwhelmed by freak storm surges, and always taking the long view”.

As the world returns to work, life will continue, with coronavirus — or the next epidemic, when it comes — another risk reduced to manageable levels, as with HIV-Aids or terrorism. If this is a modest vision, it may be the most real.

Holmes would approve of such pragmatism. The originality of his stories lie in the way their author, Arthur Conan Doyle, a trained physician, brilliantly applied deductive medical reasoning to crime fiction and so removed the element of luck from the plots. As his fictional sleuth often remarked: eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

johnpaul.rathbone@ft.com

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