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What can past pandemics teach economists about COVID-19?

A lower school substitute teacher works from her home due to the Coronavirus outbreak on April 1, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. - Her role in the school changed significantly when Coronavirus hit. She was previously working part time to support teachers when they needed to be absent from the classroom and now she helps them to build skills with new digital platforms so they can continue to teach in the best way for their students and their families.The middle school (grades 6-8) has most regularly been using Zoom and the lower grades have been using Zoom with parents.

A group of MIT researchers found that nearly half of those they surveyed are now working from home. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

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Economists are weighing in already with newly-published papers trying to better understand what the COVID-19 pandemic might do — to everything: investment returns, wages, working from home.

The research focuses on the economic history of pandemics. Economists are taking their models, trying to adapt them for additional insights during these times and using things like online surveys and Facebook activity to capture emerging trends.

Pandemics have had powerful economic effects through the ages. What sticks out as these economists survey the past?

One paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco looks at the longer run economic consequences of pandemics. These scholars included in their study 15 major pandemics.

The takeaways? The death toll from pandemics: horrible. The economy takes a huge hit, of course.

“But they found that the long run economic results, they are somewhat more mixed,” Marketplace senior economics contributor Chris Farrell told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. “And the effects, the reverberations, last for about 40 years, on average.”

For example, the inflation-adjusted rates of return on assets — so the real return on assets — were substantially depressed.

However, inflation-adjusted wages gradually increase. There could be a number of reasons behind that, but it’s probably because labor is scarce. That is, people are sick or people have died from disease, and that’s an awful way to squeeze the labor supply so that wages go up.

As far as social media goes and its usefulness as a gauge for what’s happening in real time, MIT researchers took a look at how many people have been able to successfully transition to working from home.

“One of the big divides in society right now is between people who can earn an income by working remotely at home and those who can’t,” Farrell said. “So there’s this MIT online survey, and they looked into teleworking. The survey ran from April 1 to April 5, 25,000 responses.”

“What they found is that of those employed four weeks earlier, more than one-third had converted from commuting to working from home. So if you take it all together, nearly half their survey sample is working from home.”

Click the audio player above to hear the full interview.

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