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Good news: The economy usually recovers quickly once pandemics end

[July 23, 2020: Washington Post]



The covid-19 pandemic has devastated the global economy. The World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report for June forecasts that the world economy will shrink by an average of 5.2 percent in the coming year, making this the worst recession since World War II. It further predicts a decline in per capita income of 3.6 percent, bringing with it the threat of starvation to millions of the world’s poorest people. While the June jobs report in the United States was surprisingly good, with an unprecedented 4.8 million new jobs being added, the subsequent dramatic resurgence of the virus has led again to pessimism about the economy, as Congress begins work on another trillion-plus-dollar relief package to try to prop up the economy.


But whatever passes, a period of acute economic hardship, potentially reaching catastrophic levels in some parts of the world, certainly seems to be inevitable. What will be the long-term effects? A historical perspective yields an unexpected insight into the question of the economic consequences of pandemics.


Since the Black Death of the mid-14th century, no major pandemic appears to have had a long-lasting, negative economic impact, at least in Europe and North America. In fact, pandemics scarcely register in the standard economic histories, let alone get identified as major turning points. Even the Black Death, which may have killed a third of the world’s population in about five years, did not lead to a protracted period of economic hardship.


Of course, such a demographic collapse had far-reaching economic consequences, but not all of them were negative. While landlords and employers had difficulties finding workers, serfs and wage laborers could bargain for better pay and working conditions. The Black Death actually initiated a shift from a stagnant economy, periodically culled by famine, plague or war, to a dynamic market economy, employing labor-saving technology and using late marriage as a form of birth control. In Italy, where Florence lost 50 percent of its population, the pandemic did nothing to stop the Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual movement but one based solidly on the prosperity of the Italian city-states.


After the Black Death, the bubonic plague revisited Europe regularly for about 3½ centuries. Yet none of these epidemics, which were often quite lethal locally, had any long-term negative economic consequences. The most famous of them, the Great London Plague of 1665, which killed close to one-fifth of the population and was memorably described both by Daniel Defoe and Samuel Pepys, was barely a hiccup on London’s ascent to being the hegemonic trading and financial center of Europe and the world. The standard account mentions the psychological, medical and literary impact of the plague but does not indicate any long-term negative economic consequences. As historian Carlo M. Cipolla explains, “From a purely economic point of view, war was a much greater evil than the plague … plague destroyed people, but not capital, and those who survived the onslaught of the disease usually found themselves in more favorable economic conditions.”..... MORE