Origin of Everything


Economic Lessons from Past Pandemics

Today, Danielle (from the safety of her Chicago flat) looks back at a few of the world's biggest pandemics. From the Black Death of the 1300s to the 17th c. Plague and the 1918 Spanish Flu, Danielle explores the human and economic tolls of past pandemics and what we can learn to prepare for life during and after COVID-19.

AIRED: April 10, 2020 | 0:10:11

Hey Originauts!

I'm here in my apartment (working from home, binge watching TV and trying to abide by social

distancing guidelines) because we've all been impacted by the spread of COVID-19.

And one of the ramifications dominating the headlines is the economy and how it’s impacting

the lives of people worldwide.

But this isn’t the world’s first pandemic -- so what were the economic outcomes of past

disease disasters?

And, more importantly, can we learn from them?

So today on Origin of Everything we’ll be examining the seismic economic shifts that

have occurred around epidemics and pandemics and why we look to the past in times of crisis.

One of the challenges of tracing the economic impact of epidemics and pandemics as you’ll

see in this episode is that these tragedies don’t occur in a vacuum.

Therefore it can sometimes be difficult to determine which changes are the result of

epidemics and which ones are the result of other social factors.

However, the research discussed in this episode attempts to trace the types of economic shifts

that can be tied directly to the outcomes of disease outbreaks.

Part One: 14th c.

“Black Death”

First up we’ll be discussing the plague of the 14th c, AKA “the black death.”

The start of the outbreak in Western Europe is traditionally dated to October of 1347

when 12 ships returning from the Black Sea docked in Messina, a Sicilian port.

Much to the surprise and horror of the people on shore, they discovered most of the sailors

had died and the ones who survived were deathly ill with black boils that leaked pus.

Although the ships were ordered back out to sea the resulting spread of disease proved

to be fatal.

In just a few short years approximately 20 million people in Europe died of the plague,

an estimated one third the population of the continent.

The epidemic went on until approximately the 1350s.

The disease wreaked havoc on the countries that were impacted.

Soon after the infected men--and fleas-- arrived in Messina, similar outbreaks happened in

the port city of Marseilles in France and the port of Tunis in North Africa.

It soon spread through important trade centers like Rome and Florence.

It wasn’t until the 19th century (over 500 years later!) that biologist Alexandre Yersin

discovered the germ that causes the plague, Yersinia pestis.

Along with the devastating human toll of the disease, there were also unexpected economic


Historians and economists are still debating the impact of the original “black death”

on the economic systems of Europe.

But some argue that the spread of disease possibly led to the weakening and eventual

disappearance of the feudal system in places like England.

In the broadest possible terms, the feudal system was a medieval practice where peasants

were given plots of lands by their lords in exchange for various types of service and


These arrangements came in handy particularly when those pesky lords decided to fight wars

and needed men to join the front lines.

The plague greatly reduced the number of peasants and peasants were the backbone of feudalism.

And fewer peasants meant the whole system was a lot weaker.

According to an article in the Economist, the plague lead to an increase in real incomes

because there were fewer workers to farm the land, giving them more leverage.

This made the feudal system even weaker, and some argue, led to its demise in the same


Part two: the 17th c.


The plague returned to Europe over the centuries, most famously in the 17th, and despite advancements

in science and society, it caused turmoil.

In the mid 17th century an estimated 10 percent of the population of England and Wales perished

from the resulting outbreak, while a whopping 40 percent of the population of some regions

of modern Italy were decimated by this new wave of the plague.

But although the plague spread throughout Europe the economic outcomes of the outbreaks

were not evenly distributed.

At least according to economist Guido Alfani’s article.

Alfani notes that, “ Interestingly, during the century, the fastest-growing areas were

those less affected by plague.”

His analysis shows that there may be a relationship between areas of Europe that were least impacted

by the plague and periods of increased economic growth.

He notes that England was hit considerably less intensely by the 17th c plague than areas

like Northern Italy.

As a result, England’s economy continued to thrive and trend upwards during the century

while Northern Italy’s stagnated.

So while many countries were impacted negatively by the reemergence of the plague in the 17th

century, the impact was also unevenly spread based on the severity of the outbreak.

Part three: Spanish Flu 1918

Although disease outbreaks continued around the world in the intervening years, the world

saw a major pandemic (or an epidemic that impacts multiple countries and regions worldwide)

with the Spanish Flu of 1918.

The flu killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide and an estimated 700,000 in the

US alone.

The first wave of the disease appeared mild, with symptoms including fever, chills and


As a result there was an initially low mortality rate.

But it wasn’t until the second wave of the Spanish Flu hit that doctors began to see

the mortality rate skyrocket.

According to history.com: “Almost 90 years later, in 2008, researchers

announced they’d discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: A group of three genes

enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial


In the US the disease spread from east to west.

According to a 2003 book on the Spanish flu by historian Alfred W. Crosby:

“Spanish influenza moved across the United States in the same way as the pioneers had,

for it followed their trails which had become railroads…the pandemic started along the

axis from Massachusetts to Virginia…leaped the Appalachians…positioned along the inland

waterways…it jumped clear across the plains and the Rockies to Los Angeles, San Francisco,

and Seattle.

Then, with secure bases on both coasts...took its time to seep into every niche and corner

of America.”

Additionally the death toll was considerably higher than it could’ve been because it

struck during World War I.

But this pandemic had a few unexpected economic outcomes.

First, according to economists Elizabeth Brainerd and Mark V. Siegler, American states that

were more impacted by the disease tended to grow faster in the aftermath of the pandemic.

They found that higher rates of death were associated with an increase in average annual

growth of real income, although this undoubtedly came with great suffering.

In the report from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the author Thomas Garrett notes that one of

the unique features of the Spanish Flu was that it was more likely to cause death in

people aged 18 to 40, and proved more fatal to men than women.

This was because, “In general, death was not caused by the influenza virus itself,

but by the body’s immunological reaction to the virus.

Individuals with the strongest immune systems were more likely to die than individuals with

weaker immune systems.”

He goes on to note that of the 272,500 US men who died of influenza in 1918, 49 percent

of them were between the ages of 20 and 39.

As a result: “The fact that males aged 18 to 40 were the hardest hit by the influenza

had serious economic consequences for the families that had lost their primary breadwinner...the

significant loss of prime working-age employees also had economic consequences for businesses.”

So while some individuals and families may have seen a spike in income due to the reduced

number of workers, others suffered because they had lost primary breadwinners and family

members who could contribute to the household.

Part 4: Modern Implications

Today, as we struggle through the challenges of COVID 19, it’s impossible to say what

the lasting economic outcome and human toll of this moment will be.

And perhaps that’s what makes it so frightening.

But in the last decade, many different groups have tried to predict when the next pandemic

would strike and how that would affect our economy.

When Garrett wrote his report, he attempted to estimate the impact of a pandemic on contemporary


“The World Bank estimates that a global influenza pandemic would cost the world economy

$800 billion and kill tens-of-millions of people.

Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate that deaths

in the United States could reach 207,000 and the initial cost to the economy could approach

$166 billion, or roughly 1.5 percent of the GDP.

Longrun costs are expected to be much greater.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services paints a more dire picture—up to 1.9 million

dead in the United States and initial economic costs near $200 billion.”

However a 2006 report from the European Commission (a branch of the European Union) estimated

that a potential pandemic at that time would not have a lasting effect on the European


The researchers note that, “...although a pandemic would take a huge toll in human

suffering, it would most likely not be a severe threat to the European macroeconomy.”

But both of these studies were conducted in the mid aughts based on predictions and economic


That does not mean that, like any research, the results are infallible.

Today we’re watching as the stock market fluctuates wildly and businesses across the

country and the world grind to a halt.

However the thing that can’t be predicted is the human response to a crisis, which can

have the greatest impact on the outcome of any given situation.

Government stimulus packages, human actions, and a slew of other factors may ultimately

serve a greater role in determining the outcome of our current economic crisis than we can

even predict.

Although we can look to the past for models and precedents for our present moment, we

can’t use past catastrophes to see the future.

But history can offer insights into human behavior and lend comfort when we feel like

we’re traversing unknowable terrains.

We can look to the economic upheavals and disease outbreaks of bygone eras to note how

people adapted, adjusted and survived in times of great uncertainty.

We can learn lessons from their mistakes and take some level of solace in their successes.

Today we don’t know what the political, economic or medical future holds.

But we can see that even though past epidemics and pandemics followed similar patterns, they

had vastly different outcomes based on region, efficacy of treatment, and economic structures.

So perhaps we don’t share much in common with feudal Europe, but we can trace the ways

society recovered from disaster and take heart knowing that there are roads to recovery.

So what do you think?

Anything else to add to this timeline?

Drop your citations, ideas and comments down below.

Stay inside and stay safe. And I'll see you here next time.


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