Why Didn’t the 1958 and 1918 Pandemics Destroy the Economy? Hint: It’s the Lockdowns
Media pundits and politicians are now in the habit of claiming it was the pandemic itself that has caused unemployment to skyrocket and economic growth to plummet. The claim is that sick and dying workers, fearful consumers, and disrupted supply chains would cause economic chaos. Some have even claimed that economic shutdowns actually help the economy, because it is claimed allowing the spread of the disease will itself destroy employment and economic growth.1
Leaving aside the fact there’s no evidence lockdowns actually work, we can nonetheless look to past pandemics—where coercive government interventions were at most sporadic—we should see immense economic damage. Specifically, we can look to the the pandemic of 1957-58, which was more deadly than the COVID-19 pandemic has been so far. We can also look to the 1918-19 pandemic. Yet, we will see that neither produced economic damage on a scale we now see as a result of the government mandated lockdowns. This thoroughly undermines the claims that the lockdowns are only a minor factor in economic destruction, and that the virus itself is the real culprit.
Economic Reactions in 1957–58, and in 1918–19
The CDC estimates that as of May 18 this year approximately ninety thousand Americans have died of COVID-19. Adjusted for population size, that comes out to a mortality rate of 272 per million.
This is (so far) less than half the mortality rate for the 1957–58 flu pandemic. In that pandemic, it is estimated that as many as 116,000 Americans died. Yet, the US population was much smaller then, totaling only 175 million. Adjusted for population size, mortality as a result of the “Asian flu” pandemic of 1957–58 was more than 660 per million.
That’s the equivalent of 220,000 deaths in the United States today.
Yet, Americans in 1957 did not respond by shutting down commerce, forcing people into “lockdown,” or driving unemployment up to Depression-era levels. In fact, reports show that Americans took little action beyond the usual measures involved in trying to slow the spread of disease: hand washing, staying home when ill, etc.
Although the virus does appear to have been a factor in the 1958 recession, the economic effects were miniscule compared to what the US now faces from the reaction to the COVID-19 virus. This suggests that most of the economic damage now being experienced by workers and households in the US is more a product of the policy reaction to the virus than to the virus itself.
The pandemic of 1957–58 was a serious and deadly problem for many. As cases of the Asian flu began to spread, it became clear to many scientists and other observers that there was something different and deadly about this flu. Indeed, according to D.A. Henderson, et al in “Public Health and Medical Responses to the 1957–58 Influenza Pandemic, “Humans under 65 possessed no immunity to this H2N2 strain.”1 This meant that the “highest attack rates were in school-age children through young adults up to 35 or 40 years of age.” Total deaths due to the flu over this period range from 70,000 to 116,000. This is cause for concern, to say the least. With younger Americans, many of them in prime working age, susceptible to the disease, one could anticipate significant costs in terms of economic growth and health.
What was the policy reaction to this? Henderson et al. continue:
The 1957–58 pandemic was such a rapidly spreading disease that it became quickly apparent to U.S. health ofﬁcials that efforts to stop or slow its spread were futile. Thus, no efforts were made to quarantine individuals or groups, and a delib
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