A look back 102 years to the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic and its Recovery.
The Spanish Flu in 1918 is arguably the closest event to compare with the COVID 19 Pandemic of 2020. The current crisis appears to be reaching its peak of deathly impact. Now we have a rising despair over the state of the economy. Maybe we can learn a few things by looking at what happened in 1918 and then, in the Roaring 20s.
The Spanish Flu was a topic of conversation in my family when I was growing up in the 1950s. My Mother, pictured here in 1918, was just 7 years old when the Spanish Flu devastated her western Pennsylvania coal mining town. Yes, she was truly a “coal miner’s daughter.” She witnessed a lot of death at an early age.
Ruth/Mom related her experiences, through the eyes of a 7-year-old little girl watching as trucks and wagons came down her coal town streets to pick up and bury those that died from the 1918 Pandemic.
It was not anything that a 7-year-old should have experienced. Ruth did survive, and her burned-in-memory images were vivid and frightening many decades later.
Some Facts Related to the 1918 Pandemic:
U.S. Population in 1918 – estimated at 103 million (just 1/3 of our 2020 population)
U.S. Deaths attributed to the 1918 Spanish Flu – 675,000 (.05 % of the country died)
The Spanish Flu afflicted 25 million Americans that year- 25% suffered from the virus
Worldwide Deaths – estimated at 50 million
In 1918 life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by 12 years on average due to the Pandemic
Let's Put this in Perspective:
U.S. total population in 2020 – 331 million, or more than 3 times as many as in 1918
That means that the 675,000 deaths would be 3X as many if the same conditions were experienced today- comparable to 2 million deaths.
It is believed that the Spanish Flu and its devastation spread quickly in the U.S. due in large part to our participation in WW I. The American armed forces totaled some 4.7 million at that time… 2.8 million of these served overseas.
The significance implied is that those 2.8 million “international travelers” would not normally be that mobile. International travel was not as easy as today, and few could afford it personally. Just imagine the multiplier effect of having them return to the U.S. by ship and the ultra-crowded nature of troop ships.
Their likelihood of contracting a virus of this magnitude and devastation was aggravated by their military travel. When back home in the U.S. they were then exposed to army camp life which also is a likely contributor to the fast spreading of the virus. People traveling to a foreign land and then congregating in close quarters is not a recipe for “Social Distancing.”
Today our country and the world enjoy the freedom international travel at a much higher pace, mostly due to efficient and affordable air travel. With the number of international flights per day, it is not hard to imagine how this mobility contributes to the fast-moving pandemic of 2020.
What Happened After 1918?
1919 preceded a Post-War, and a Post-Pandemic, decade of economic growth and expanding prosperity.
The Roaring 20s:
The U.S. economy grew 42% in the 1920-29
New Construction almost doubled - $6.7 up to $10.1 Billion
For most of the decade, unemployment stayed low – 4%
Gross Domestic Product grew from $687.7 Billion in 1920 to $977.0 Billion in 1929
Coming off the loss of life caused by WW I and the Pandemic, we then experienced a decade of good feelings and economic prosperity. The “Roaring 20s.” Put simply: the Pandemic did not hold us back.
Then Came the Crash and Depression- The Business Cycle cannot be denied. All good things must at some point come to an end. However, a “cycle” is just that… and the bad things and hardships must also, at some point, come to an end. Whatever the situation… “This too shall pass.”
So What’s Ahead?
I think most believe that our country, its medical scientists, and its will to conquer, will find the vaccines and treatments that will beat, or at least impede repeat outbreaks.
The virus probably will return, but as Dr. Anthony Fauci (NIH) tells us, we will be better prepared to prevent and fight its threat to human health and safety.
Is the Economy Permanently Damaged? What’s Next?
Those questions are beyond my pay grade. However, we can draw some reassurance from the history of our society dealing with crisis. It is reasonable to assume that a recovery of some intensity will follow this horrible experience. I’m a believer! I hope you are too!
What About the Business Cycle?
One major difference when comparing the 1918 and 2020 pandemics is the timing relative to the underlying business cycle. We do know…
In 1918 the virus struck just in advance of the boom years of the 1920s. Whatever caused the boom, recovery from the doom of the Pandemic also benefited.
Today, in 2020, some will tell you that we are at the end of very long period of expansion (10 years). If the Business Cycle predictions are correct, we are due for a recession of some magnitude. History of recessions in the U.S. are very clear on how this cycle functions.
It also appears clear, that it will not be COVID 19 that brings us down.
It has been an extended “moment in time” for sure… but eventually still just a “moment in time.”
This too shall pass.
Jim Muntz for DealersEdge