The Coronavirus and the Great Influenza Pandemic: Lessons from the “Spanish Flu” for the Coronavirus's Potential Effects on Mortality and Economic Activity

27 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2020 Last revised: 24 Apr 2020

See all articles by Robert J. Barro

Robert J. Barro

Harvard University - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

José F. Ursúa

Dodge & Cox Funds

Joanna Wang

EverLife

Date Written: March 2020

Abstract

Mortality and economic contraction during the 1918-1920 Great Influenza Pandemic provide plausible upper bounds for outcomes under the coronavirus (COVID-19). Data for 48 countries imply flu-related deaths in 1918-1920 of 40 million, 2.1 percent of world population, implying 150 million deaths when applied to current population. Regressions with annual information on flu deaths 1918-1920 and war deaths during WWI imply flu-generated economic declines for GDP and consumption in the typical country of 6 and 8 percent, respectively. There is also some evidence that higher flu death rates decreased realized real returns on stocks and, especially, on short-term government bills.

Suggested Citation

Barro, Robert J. and Ursúa, José F. and Wang, Joanna, The Coronavirus and the Great Influenza Pandemic: Lessons from the “Spanish Flu” for the Coronavirus's Potential Effects on Mortality and Economic Activity (March 2020). NBER Working Paper No. w26866. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3559155

Robert J. Barro (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Department of Economics ( email )

Littauer Center
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-3203 (Phone)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

José F. Ursúa

Dodge & Cox Funds ( email )

c/o Boston Financial Data Services
P.O. Box 8422
Boston, MA 02266-8422
United States

Joanna Wang

EverLife ( email )

New York, NY
United States

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