Guido Alfani: Epidemics, inequality and poverty in preindustrial and early industrial times, in: IIEP-WP-2020-16 (August 2020).
This paper is part of a symposium organized by Dr. Remi Jedwab of George Washington University that will be published in the Journal of Economic Literature.
Recent research has examined the distributive consequences of major historical epidemics. The current crisis triggered by Covid-19 prompted the author to look at the past to gain insights into how pandemics can affect inequalities in income, wealth and health. The fourteenth-century Black Death, which is usually believed to have led to a significant reduction in economic inequality, has attracted the most attention. However, the picture becomes much more complex when other epidemics are taken into account. This article deals with the worst epidemics of the pre-industrial era, from the Justinian’s plague of 540-41 to the last major European plagues of the seventeenth century, as well as the cholera waves of the nineteenth century. It shows that the distribution results of fatal epidemics are not only dependent on the mortality rate, but are mediated by a number of factors, especially the institutional framework that existed at the beginning of each crisis. It then examines how past epidemics affected poverty, arguing that highly lethal epidemics could reduce their prevalence through two profoundly different mechanisms: redistribution towards the poor or extermination of the poor. Finally, the historical link between the progressive weakening and spacing in time of lethal epidemics and improvements in life expectancy is recalled and the impact of epidemics on health inequalities and living standards is discussed.