The Economic Implications of Epidemics Old and New


Clive Bell & Maureen Lewis

Published: December 2004


The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the winter of 2002–03 raised the specter of a new, unknown and uncontrollable infectious disease that spreads quickly and is often fatal. Certain branches of economic activity, notably tourism, felt its impact almost at once, and investor expectations of a safe and controlled investment climate were brought into question. Part of the shock of SARS was the abrupt reversal of a mounting legacy of disease control that had altered societies’ expectations from coping with waves of epidemics of smallpox, cholera, and measles, among other diseases, to complacency with the virtual elimination of disease epidemics. This paper analyzes the economic implications of the Great Plague in the fourteenth century, the 1918–19 influenza epidemic, the HIV/AIDS curse and SARS to demonstrate the short- and long-term effects of different kinds of epidemics. The magnitude and nature of economic effects vary according to the duration and characteristics of the



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