Hervé Joly, JVI Director
Guido Alfani, Professor of Economic History, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Bocconi University
Philipp Heimberger, Economist, the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies
Recent research has explored the distributive consequences of major historical epidemics, and the current crisis triggered by Covid-19 prompts us to look at the past for insights about 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 greatest attention. However, the picture becomes much more complex if other epidemics are considered. This lecture will cover the worst epidemics of the past, from the great plagues of medieval and early modern times to the cholera waves of the nineteenth century and the Spanish Flu of the twentieth. It will show how the distributive outcomes of lethal epidemics do not only depend upon mortality rates, but are mediated by a range of factors, chief among them the institutional framework in place at the onset of each crisis. It will also explore how past epidemics affected poverty, arguing that highly lethal epidemics could reduce its prevalence through two deeply different mechanisms: redistribution towards the poor, or extermination of the poor. The lecture will also argue that if treated carefully, history of epidemics and pandemics has much to offer towards a better understanding of the current crisis.