The ninth anniversary of that disaster is next week and still some people are without permanent shelter, some towns have never reappeared and thousands of businesses have failed, driving up local unemployment. Tens of thousands of people left the region.
"The go-to cliché of Chinese significance to the global economy is now going to be literally tested: what does happen when China sneezes?”
With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we will see that pattern of overlapping phases play out – as it does for all calamities of such scale.
Being Japan - a modern, earthquake prone economy - the actual quake, while the largest on record, did relatively minor damage. But the tsunami it triggered razed the coast and killed more than 20,000 people.
It also wrecked a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, testing the brink of a nuclear meltdown.
In the weeks and months which followed, other impacts played out. The world’s luxury car brands realised the sole manufacturer of the exotic metallic paints they used was in the devastated region of Tohoku.
In the months and years after, produce from the region, especially seafood, was avoided by consumers, even when it was demonstrably safe.
While the initial rebuilding generated work, for many businesses, large and small, an economic malaise descended on the region which persists to this day.
According to the Japanese government, almost 50,000 people still live as evacuees. Sales in the marine product processing industry are still down. The contaminated water management and decommissioning process at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is still an issue.
Indeed, the decommissioning of the nuclear plant and the radiation threat will span decades if not centuries.
With COVID-19, the immediate phase of the epidemic, although delayed by the initial opacity around the outbreak, has been swift.
Approaching 100,000 people have been infected although that number is likely to be understated (given the nature of medical data in some countries and also the likelihood of non-reporting of minor cases). The mortality rate is estimated at between 0.05 and 4 per cent (again, if minor cases are unreported, the death rate looks higher). In China today it is 3.7 per cent.
Beyond this human cost, quarantine and preventative measures have caused profound, widely documented disruption.
Yet as ANZ Chief Risk Officer for Institutional, Tim Bezencon, says, we are really still at the stage of the sea receding before the tsunami hits. The infection curve is still “immature” – while new infections are falling in China, they are rising exponentially in South Korea, Italy and Iran.
The latest, most significant economic data from China show a collapse in manufacturing and consequent hit to growth. Manufacturing activity plumbed a record low of 35.7 on the most widely watched index, from 50 in January and against forecasts of 46.
Economic forecasts for China’s March quarter are dire: from 6.1 per cent growth in the December quarter to as low as 2 per cent. As Bezencon says, lost profit isn’t recoverable: net present values are already hit, supply chains can’t ramp up to 150 per cent, consumer confidence takes time to even recover.
The go-to cliché of Chinese significance to the global economy is now going to be literally tested: what does happen when China sneezes?