The Covid-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis which has rocked the global economy. The first case was recorded in Wuhan, China in November 2019 and had never previously been identified in humans. Since then has spread to over 210 countries and put over 100 of them on lockdown. While there have been countless plagues throughout history, coronavirus has been unique in many ways. Fortunately, it is not on the scale of the deadliest pandemics. The deadliest plague in history was the bubonic plague in the mid 1300’s which ravaged the Western and middle world. As many as 200 million people died from the black death, wiping out 60% of Europe’s total population. It took around 200 years for the population to recover. Fast forward a few hundred years and although societies and economies have developed, pandemics are still posing a huge challenge. Globalisation is in full effect and our economies are more interdependent than ever before. There have been numerous pandemics of different forms over the past 50 years but none causing economic disruption like we have seen with Covid-19. But how does the economic impact of these other pandemics compare with covid-19? This article will explore how other similar pandemics have affected the global economy.

1918 FLU PANDEMIC (H1N1)

The 1918 flu pandemic, better known as the “Spanish flu” was the most devasting influenza pandemic in the past 150 years. The first case was recorded in the US but the government censored all reports. The virus was first reported in the free Spanish newspapers hence why it was dubbed Spanish flu. The flu ravaged the globe as soldiers returned to their nations during and after world war one, bringing disease with them. It is estimated that between 20 and 50 million died during the outbreak. This dwarfs the 9 million people who died in combat during World War One. Over one-third of the world population was infected. The outbreak was fuelled by squalid living conditions and economic struggle during and after the war.

The Spanish flu was most akin to the Covid-19 outbreak on the scale of international response. It had the largest economic impact of any pandemic in recent times and the world saw widespread lockdowns as we see today. In the US, sporting events and public gatherings were banned. There was a collapse in economic activity as so many people were bedridden that businesses were forced to shut. Furthermore, in contrast to the coronavirus, the vast majority of Spanish Flu victims were young people, between the ages 15 and 40. The huge loss of working age people caused huge labour shortages and wage increases. In the UK, labourer wages soared by over 34% (1). While this created an increase in average wages after the pandemic, this notably hit economies. In the UK, GDP tanked by 6% (2). It is not entirely clear what part of the decline can be attributed to a post-war decline. Analysts estimate that at current day currency value, the Spanish flu would cost the global economy a staggering $4 trillion (3). This decline was short-lived however, as the global economy picked up after the outbreak and, particularly in the US, brought an area of growth and prosperity. The downturn of the coronavirus outbreak may be longer last but the economic shock is unlikely to reach the scale of the Spanish flu, due to the comparatively lower mortality rate.

SWINE INFLUENZA (H1N1/09)

The H1N1/09, commonly known as Swine flu, was first detected in 2009 in Mexico. Swine flu was far more infectious than SARS and seemingly Covid-19. In the first year of the pandemic, nearly 1.4 billion people were affected. Fortunately, however, it had a comparatively low mortality rate, killing just 0.2% of those infected, or around 280,000 people. Most older people already had immunity, but younger people typically did not. Despite this, the vast majority of cases were mild, and people recovered without complications or hospitalisation. As the virus was not as deadly as anticipated, there was a negligible economic impact of Swine flu. There were no lockdowns or social distancing measures introduced and a vaccine was created within months. Furthermore, there was no collapse in the labour force was the case with Spanish flu. The world economy was still in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis and there was certainly no major economic shock due to the Swine flu.

SARS

In 2002, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, spread from China throughout the world killing 774 people. Although SARS bears similarities to Covid-19 in the way its spreads and the deadly effects on the respiratory system. Like covid-19, it transmits through respiratory droplets and contaminated surfaces. SARS had a much higher mortality rate but a much lower infection rate, killing around 10% of the infected. The virus infected 8,098 people globally in 29 different countries before it was fully contained. SARs was something of a precursor to Covid-19. It highlighted how interconnected the world had become and how rapidly contagions can spread to all corners of the globe.  

The economic impact was limited as the global spread was not as severe as feared. China and Hong Kong saw the bulk of the economic disruption. As with Covid-19, China and Hong Kong shut down tourism sites, restaurants, entertainment venues and schools to limit the spread. Governments outside of this region however, did not take such drastic measures as there were simply not many cases. Of the 8,098 confirmed cases, only 1000 of them were outside China and Hong Kong. The UK had 4 cases and 0 deaths, while the US had no cases at all. Despite this, the total cost to the global economy was around $40 billion due to the slowdown in the affected region. China’s manufacturing output dipped while Hong Kong and Singapore fell into recession as their tourism industries tanked. This economic impact however, is minuscule in comparison to the predicted cost of coronavirus. Analysts expect a cost of between $1 and $3 trillion to the global economy due to coronavirus.

HOW WILL COVID-19 COMPARE?

A deep global recession due the coronavirus outbreak is inevitable. France is already in recession and Bloomberg puts the chance of US recession at 100%. The expected costs to the global economy runs into trillions. The only recent pandemic comparable in terms of scale was Spanish flu. Advances in medicine and healthcare however, mean we are unlikely to see anywhere near the mortality rate of Spanish flu. A long-term economic depression is possible but may also be avoided. The US Federal Reserve undertook a study in the economic impact of the Spanish flu. They found those US states who introduced rapid measures such as social distancing did not see any medium-term economic decline. Rather a lack of action by some states and the consequent severe loss of life was the primary factor of economic decline in these regions. Today, over one-third of global population is lockdown and governments have pumped trillions of dollars into supporting households and businesses. These measures and others are all likely to mitigate a long term economic downturn but to what extent remains to be seen. Coronavirus is a stark reminder of just how fragile our global economy has become.