Economic Lessons From The Spanish Flu

Economic Lessons We Should Have Learned from the Spanish Flu

What were the financial repercussions of the Spanish flu of 1918 and what lessons can we learn from it today?

Updated on Apr 01 2020


It’s impossible to turn on the news without seeing COVID-19 coverage, and rightly so. This type of worldwide pandemic isn’t something that we have since seen the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Though technology has advanced exponentially in the last 100 years, what economic lessons did we learn from the Spanish Flu? Or, have we even learned anything?

The Spanish flu pandemic

Over 20 million people died from the Spanish flu (although there are some statistics that place the death rate over 50 million) and, unlike COVID-19, it primarily killed those who were between 18 and 40 years old and left lifelong effects on those who survived. The population was already immuno-compromised in many areas due to the strains of WWI and many were already unhealthy when they were infected. Much of the outbreak was due to the war ending and troops traveling throughout the world to get back home.

The economic fallout

The economic fallout of the Spanish flu was severe. The world was already reeling from the war, and now major cities were made to shut down, just like they are today. Sporting events, funerals, weddings, etc. were all canceled in order to help stop the spread. Because of this, there were labor shortages and an upswing in unemployment. In a world trying to put itself back together economically, the Spanish flu—which lasted around two years—made it that much harder.

Financial lessons learned from the Spanish flu

While we can already see lessons we are learning from COVID-19, it looks like we are experiencing many of the same economic setbacks we saw in 1918. It’s true that we have a better understanding of how disease is spread than in 1918 and are practicing self-quarantining and self-isolation techniques. However, because of the late measures that countries implemented, flattening the curve of COVID-19 is going to take longer than if we had begun these procedures earlier in the outbreak.

While the US government passed a stimulus package to help the economy and pushed back Tax Day 90 days, workers are still losing their jobs by the thousands and a record number of Americans have applied for unemployment benefits. With all but essential work shutting down, more and more Americans will lose their jobs before things start to turn around. We will most certainly see a recession that affects millions of Americans and others throughout the world.

It seems that in some ways, we are seeing history repeat itself. Technological advancements and global communication have helped to hinder the spread of COVID-19, but the financial repercussions may be similar to what happened with the Spanish flu. As of now, it’s important to make sure you have an emergency fund, are practicing self-isolation, pay down any high-interest debt, and consider speaking with a financial advisor.

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