Epidemics and economic rebound

Historiographical analysis1 of the impacts that major epidemics have had on economic and social systems and indirectly on the advancement of society invariably shows that they boost progress.

Events that have led to a sense of uncertainty, due to the nature of the illness rather than the duration of its effects, have tended to generate a change in perspective and expectations. These transformations paved the way for periods of sometimes intense progress, which then combined with other sometimes tragic human events, such as the hundred years’ war which followed the black death of 1348-1351, or the all-too-brief interwar period which followed the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.

These events have marked the rise and fall of the empires of antiquity, shaped the course of conquest campaigns2 and, in the case of late medieval Europe, provided the backdrop to one of the most defining moments of Italian culture which led to the Renaissance.

Some historians3 have pointed out how this historical period of great artistic and cultural expression was accompanied by changes across all fields of human thought, like the gradual recognition that the underlying reasons causing the health emergency should be sought not in the realm of the divine or the position of the stars, but in the natural world.

This belief paved the way for subsequent progress in the science of understanding nature and methods of disease transmission, forming the basis for the development of effective methods for prevention and treatment.

Italy, which paid an enormous price in terms of lives lost, with mortality reaching 75% of the population in Siena, became the hothouse at that historic juncture of the greatest cultural and artistic production and general progress humankind has ever known, which in economic terms saw the first steps towards capitalism and the development of a global economy throughout a process that lasted practically without interruption for two centuries.

  1. The Economic Implications of Epidemics Old and New” By Clive Bell (University of Heidelberg, Human Development Network, World Bank) and Maureen Lewis (Center for Global Development, Washington DC), 4 October 2004. 

  2. Plagues and Peoples, William H. McNeill, 1977, version published online by Cambridge University Press, 2008.  

  3. Samuel Kline Cohn Jr., The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. Arnold and Oxford University Press, 2002.