Is anything going to change?

Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

The most recent wave of COVID-related disruptions here in Connecticut has subsided. More companies are calling workers back to the office. More conferences and classes are being held in person. Both vehicle traffic and air travel have rebounded to near 2019 levels, as have restaurant reservations. The last statewide mask mandate in the U.S. was lifted in late March. In his State of the Union address last month, President Biden urged Americans to “get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people.” This “return-to-normal” message has been echoed by public officials across the country.

Can we, and should we, return to the “normal” of 2019? Or will the crisis lead to permanent shifts in economic, political, and social activity? People have been speculating about these questions since the first days of the pandemic. Will we ever go back to the standard five-day workweek? Will we keep wearing masks during flu season? Will people ever want to live in cities again? Will the crisis force a reckoning with the shortcomings of the previous “normal,” from the inequities of holding in-person academic conferences to the dangers of high levels of air pollution?

We can already see that some of the bolder predictions of 2020 have not panned out. The COVID crisis did not permanently damage the New York housing market or encourage a long-term decline in carbon emissions. In fact, some have begun to lament that little seems to have changed at all. In her newsletter last month, journalist Lizzie Wade discusses “post-plague disappointment”: a feeling that the lessons and political potential of the pandemic are being squandered in a rush to return to normal. This disappointment is echoed in a recent essay by Mack Penner, who writes that “if the early days of the pandemic were dominated politically by a sense that things might be about to change, the tide has recently begun to flow in the opposite direction.”

This post discusses what HPE research can tell us about the potential long-term legacies of the COVID crisis. What do we know about the long-term effects of historical pandemics or other disasters? How much agency did individuals have in shaping these legacies? How soon were the long-term consequences, or lack thereof, evident? What are the implications for thinking about the legacies of COVID-19 in 2022?

Woodcut of plague victims, 1532
Woodcut Image of Plague Victims in the 1530s (Source)

Temporary shocks or permanent shifts?

The experience of living through a pandemic has rekindled interest in studying historical disease outbreaks that might serve as useful analogues for projecting what might lie ahead. As Peter Manseau sardonically notes in a recent essay for Slate, “It’s a boom time for the Black Death.” References to the “lessons” of the Black Plague can be found everywhere, as Manseau documents, from the opinion section of the New York Times  to scholarly articles to trending videos on Amazon Prime.

It is hard to think of another historical episode that has attracted as much scholarly attention in HPE (or in general) as the Black Death’s march across Europe. Contemporary and classic works have pointed to the plague as a turning point in the history of the continent, precipitating the end of serfdom, the rise of the territorial state, and long-term shifts in inequality, urbanization, and living standards. Some of these consequences are discussed in an earlier post by Dan Gingerich and Jan Vogler.

A new article in the Journal of Economic Literature by Remi Jedwab, Noel Johnson, and Mark Koyama provides an outstanding review of what is currently known about how the Black Death shaped development, both over the long- and short-run and via direct and indirect channels, and what remains the subject of debate. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Black Death, a demographic shock with few historical parallels, had wide-ranging and long-lasting consequences across the continent. Though millions have lost their lives during their COVID pandemic, the scale of the destruction has not come close to what was seen in Europe during the Middle Ages (see Table 1 in the Jedwab, Johnson, and Koyama paper for a summary). Yet looking closer at what is known about the consequences of the Black Death reveals that evidence on long-term persistence is mixed, even in this extraordinary example. As Jedwab, Johnson, and Koyama illustrate, the economic and political impacts of the Black Death were far-reaching, but they varied across space, even in the short run, and it is unclear whether all observed changes can be directly attributed to the effects of disease. Furthermore, some of the immediate consequences proved to be temporary, fading away once populations began to rebound in the subsequent decades.

Given the magnitude of the shock, that some things did not change in the aftermath of the Black Death is arguably more surprising than the evidence of long-term political and economic shifts. This is something that has come up in some of my work on the consequences of the demographic collapse of Mexico’s indigenous population following the Conquest. By most accounts, the indigenous population of Mexico fell by somewhere between 50 and 95% during the first century of colonial rule. As Francisco Garfias and I discussed in an earlier Broadstreet post, much of this loss occurred during a series of severe epidemics in the 16th century. As I, my co-authors, and others have shown, the epidemics precipitated important shifts in regional political economy through reshaping landholding patterns, shifting the incentives for political centralization, and upending the economic and political arrangements of the early colonial period.

Figure 1: Population density of Mexico around 1570 (left) and 1800 (right). Shading reflects within-year quintiles of density, with darker colors representing higher densities. Markers represent natural anchorage areas. Source: Alix-Garcia and Sellars (2020)

However, not all of these changes were permanent. One of the surprising things that Jennifer Alix-Garcia and I show in our 2020 paper in the Journal of Urban Economics is that this cataclysmic wave of epidemics and destruction did not lead to a durable shift in the spatial distribution of Mexico’s population. By the end of the colonial period, the distribution of population strongly resembled that of the 16th century (Figure 1). The bivariate correlation between subnational population density measured in the middle of the 16th century and at the start of the 19th century is 0.83, higher than the correlation between 16th– and 17th-century population density. We discuss some potential reasons for this in the paper, including differences in geographic fundamentals and the role of colonial and pre-colonial institutions in serving as a focal point for post-epidemic settlement and investment.

As it turns out, similarly cataclysmic events have had similarly muted long-term consequences on the distribution of population in other contexts. In their well-known “Bones, Bombs, and Breakpoints” paper, Davis and Weinstein (2002) show that Allied bombing campaigns during World War II did not permanently shift the relative distribution of population between Japanese cities. This is surprising given variation in bombing intensity across space and the amount of destruction in affected areas. Some cities, like Kyoto and Sapporo, were largely spared from large-scale bombing, while hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in others, such as Tokyo and Hiroshima. Despite the severe casualties and the incredible destruction of infrastructure, Davis and Weinstein show that affected cities generally regained their relative size within two decades of the war.

A lesson for thinking about the future legacies of the COVID crisis is that it is not guaranteed that even a major shock like this one will have long-term consequences, and any long-term effects are not always foreseeable in the immediate aftermath. This may be comforting news for some, but it also illustrates that confident predictions that the crisis has brought about the end of work as we know it or a permanent change in the geography of suburbia should be met with some skepticism.

The role of politics and institutions

Another important lesson from academic work on the long-term consequences of pandemics is that these consequences often vary greatly, even when comparing areas with similar levels of mortality.  Perhaps the most famous example—which is highlighted in the Jedwab, Johnson, and Koyama piece—is the evolution of labor institutions in eastern vs. western Europe following the Black Death. In much of western Europe, the decline of population increased the bargaining power of labor, contributing to the end of serfdom and a long-term decline in the political and economic power of the landed nobility. In most of eastern Europe, by contrast, reliance on serfdom increased after the Black Death as labor scarcity made the adoption of coercive labor practices more attractive. A sizable literature has explored why the effects on labor institutions differed so markedly across space; Acemoglu and Wolitzky (2011), for example, provide a theoretical explanation. What this literature illustrates is that demography alone cannot explain the long-term consequences of pandemics. The effects of the plague were shaped not just by the direct effects on mortality, but also by the political and economic response of authorities.

This touches on a topic that we’ve covered at Broadstreet before. In one of our first ever posts, Ali Cirone discusses the politics of pandemic response, from the 1918 influenza pandemic to the 2020 COVID crisis. Additional posts by Leticia Arroyo-Abad and Noel Maurer, Yuri Zhukov, and others have subsequently considered the connection between pandemics and politics. These discussions further demonstrate the role of political choice and human agency in shaping long- and short-run pandemic impacts.

The point is emphasized in a recent paper in the Journal of Historical Political Economy by Alberto Diaz-Cayeros, Juan Espinosa-Balbuena, and Saumitra Jha. The authors examine community resilience in the face of pandemics, political upheaval, and repression in colonial Mexico. Their analysis demonstrates that indigenous communities varied greatly in their ability to weather the disease and repression of the colonial period, highlighting how the choices of both indigenous communities and colonial authorities shaped the course of the infamous demographic collapse. Diaz-Cayeros further discusses the central role of human agency in their paper and the connection to the COVID-19 crisis in a blog post last month. As he writes, a tragic commonality between our current pandemic and the epidemics of colonial Mexico is that many of the deaths could have been prevented. Mortality is a policy failure, not a natural consequence of specific pathogens.

Just as political choices influenced the severity of the pandemic in the short term, any long-term legacies of COVID have been and will be shaped by political decision-making. Popular discussions about the potential “silver linings” of the pandemic notwithstanding, there is nothing that guarantees that any policy adjustments will be positive or that they will mitigate rather than exacerbate the effects of future disasters.

It is too early to know

A final lesson that can be drawn from the HPE literature is that the consequences of pandemics can evolve in unpredictable ways. Recent work on historical persistence has illustrated that the long-term effects of historical events or institutions are not static, but rather depend on subsequent political and economic choices. (See Cirone and Pepinsky’s ARPS piece or the Broadstreet post by Vicky Fouka for nice summaries.) Existing work on the legacies of epidemics, from the Black Death to “cocoliztli” in early colonial Mexico, illustrate that the long-term effects may change dramatically over time with political shifts. Whatever the long-term consequences of the COVID pandemic end up being, they may look very different than they appear today.

This connects back to Wade’s piece on “post-plague disappointment.” As she discusses, some of the disappointment felt by 14th-century elites in the wake of the Black Death may be attributable to an inability to “return to normal” after this unprecedented crisis. We now know that the Black Death had transformative consequences, but as Wade discusses serfdom in England did not disappear overnight. Landlords spent decades trying to return to the “normal” of pre-plague labor relations before it became clear that the earlier arrangements were no longer tenable.

It might therefore take some time before the true effects of the COVID pandemic come to light. The pandemic is barely two years old. Though we might wish it were not so, it is also still ongoing. We should be cautious in prematurely declaring either that everything has changed or that nothing has. If history is any guide, the long-term consequences of the pandemic will be shaped by the political choices of the coming years. Much is still to be decided.

Header image: Emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 influenza pandemic.


  • Emily Sellars

    Sellars is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Yale University, where she is affiliated with the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, the Leitner Program in Political Economy, and the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Her research interests are at the intersection of comparative political economy, development economics, and economic history. She is particularly interested in the politics of emigration and in the historical political economy in Mexico and Central America. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, the Journal of Development Economics, the Journal of Urban Economics, and the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy. Sellars received her Ph.D. jointly in Political Science and Agricultural and Applied Economics from University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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