682/2023 Guido Alfani
This article provides an overview of current knowledge about the economic consequences of major epidemics and pandemics in the long run of history, from the Justinianic Plague of the 540s to the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. For the preindustrial period, the analysis concentrates on plagues (and particularly on the Black Death pandemic of the fourteenth century and on the last great European plagues of the seventeenth), which stand out in the comparison with other epidemics both because of their outsized economic and demographic effects, and for having concentrated the attention of economic historians and other social scientists. For the industrial period, cholera is taken as the main pandemic threat of the nineteenth century. The article concludes analyzing the Spanish Flu, which made the world aware of the danger posed by the influenza viruses - and which is arguably the best term of comparison with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, due to some epidemiological similarities. The article illustrates the short, medium and long-run consequences of the various epidemics and pandemics discussed, and also highlights the importance of the historical context in mediating the impact of any epidemic, against tendencies to generalize from some well-known, but possibly exceptional, cases such as the Black Death. This and other findings teach us some useful lessons for understanding better recent pandemics, like Covid-19, and might help to build preparedness against future threats of a similar kind.