Pandemic shutdowns actually helped economic growth in 1918 flu

Tribune Content Agency

Coronavirus containment measures that force economies to slow down or halt may ultimately be better for economic growth than laxer efforts, according to Federal Reserve researchers who analyzed the 1918 influenza pandemic in the U.S.

The research was presented in a paper released in preliminary form Thursday, as the U.S. economy grinds to a halt to stop the aggressive spread of the novel coronavirus. Authors include the Federal Reserve Board’s Sergio Correia, the New York Fed’s Stephan Luck, and Emil Verner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

President Donald Trump has called for the economy to ramp back up soon, saying he would like it to be “just raring to go by Easter.” Some economists have cautioned that if such a move caused the virus to surge, it would ultimately take a heavier toll than the current crisis.

The paper said the influenza — which killed between 550,000 to 675,000 Americans, or 0.66% of the population — caused a “sharp and persistent fall in real economic activity.” A U.S. state at the average level of exposure suffered an 18% reduction in manufacturing output in 1918. Those effects lingered for years and depressed economies, especially in regions with higher levels of infection.

But steps taken to halt the coronavirus’s spread like social distancing — identified by the researchers as “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” or NPIs — didn’t have the same negative effects.

“Cities that implemented more rapid and forceful non-pharmaceutical health interventions do not experience worse downturns,” the researchers wrote. “In contrast, evidence on manufacturing activity and bank assets suggests that the economy performed better in areas with more aggressive NPIs after the pandemic.”

The paper drew clear distinctions between Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and influenza. The latter seems to have a higher mortality rate, for one thing.

But there are potential similarities between the two pandemics, with the authors citing places such as Taiwan and Singapore that implemented early measures, have limited infection growth and have “mitigated the worst economic disruption caused by the pandemic.”


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