COVID-19: The View from Historical Crises | Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic is frequently described as unprecedented. In a sense, this is true—taken together, this public health crisis and its attendant economic downturn appear poised to dwarf the scope, scale, and disruptiveness of most modern pandemics. This fact alone makes it difficult to extrapolate from recent experience—but more to the point, data and timescale limitations mean that even relevant recent experience can do little to help us anticipate and respond to COVID-19’s potential long-run impact on individuals and the wider economy. History, however, can offer a solution. Not only do historical crises offer closer analogues to COVID19 in each of its key dimensions—as a global pandemic, as a global recession—but they also offer the runway necessary to study the lifecourse and intergenerational outcomes. In this paper, we review the evidence on the long-run effects on health, labor, and human capital of both historical pandemics (with a focus on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic) and historical recessions (with a focus on the Great Depression). We then consider the role of tradeoffs between population health and economic activity, with reference to air pollution. We conclude by discussing how past crises can inform our approach to COVID-19—helping tell us what to look for, what to prepare for, and what data we ought to collect now.