What Was the Economic Impact of 1917-19’s Flu Pandemic?

Half a million Americans died in the great flu pandemic of 1917-19. While the tragic loss of 500,000 people did not lead to a Great Depression in 1918-19, it did lead to slowdowns in hard-hit areas. “Areas that were more severely affected by the 1918 Flu Pandemic saw a sharp and persistent decline in real economic activity,” wrote three economists for the Federal Reserve in New York. “Cities that implemented early and extensive non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) suffered no adverse economic effects over the medium term. On the contrary, cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experienced a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic subsided. Altogether, our findings suggest that pandemics can have substantial economic costs, and NPIs can lead to both better economic outcomes and lower mortality rates.”

(Related: Economic lessons to be learned from the last truly global pandemic.)

In that period, without much understanding of the medical, social, cultural and economic tools available, families mostly seemed to endure their losses in private.

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