The combined impact of the 1918 Spanish flu and World War I took a devastating toll on society and the global economy. It is said that more people died of the Spanish flu than total casualties from the war, with the numbers possibly between 50 million and 100 million.1 Take a moment and try to imagine how challenging of a period that must have been for people around the world. How impossible it must have felt to be optimistic about a brighter economic future, and better public health, in such a dark period.
But what happened next was not an extension of a dark time, it was an all-out revival of the culture and the economy. What came next was the Roaring Twenties.
In the decade that followed the Spanish flu pandemic and the World War, the U.S. economy is estimated to have grown over 40%, with mass production leading to more goods and more jobs, and with the auto and aviation industries seeing rapid growth. Women were given the right to vote. The stock market surged. And the U.S. cemented its place as a global power.2
Not long after, the U.S. was faced with a new set of monumental challenges – the arrival of World War II and concurrent waves of polio outbreaks. The war boosted production but was a major drag on sentiment and trade, and it took years after the war to see price controls and rationing go away.
Then in 1949, the new polio epidemic appeared and ravaged several population centers. The nation was confronted with devastating images of children in wheelchairs, crutches, and leg braces. In the 1952 polio outbreak ‘season,’ there were 57,628 cases, 3,145 deaths, and an astounding 21,269 who experienced paralysis.3
Even still, as the crisis blunted sentiment and had many Americans worried about the future, the steel mills were booming, the nascent oil industry was expanding at a rapid clip, the civil rights movement was born, and the “golden age of American capitalism” took hold. The stock market, ever on cue, continued to rise.
Then there was the 1957-1958 H2N2 pandemic, which over time led to an estimated 1.1 million deaths worldwide. Some 20 million Americans were infected, and 116,000 died. Yet, the period that followed was one of the best economic stretches in U.S. history. During the 1960s, it is estimated that real GDP growth averaged 5%, with growth as high as 8.5% in two quarters. Payrolls in the U.S. also increased by 32% over the course of the decade, which shattered records for job growth. A pandemic gave way to a ‘great economic revival.’4
Bottom Line for Investors
I realize that for many readers, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – coupled with relentless news coverage and a general aura that the situation is worsening – may make it seem like the outlook for growth in the coming years or decade is tenuous at best. For some, there may even be the feeling that the economy and the culture may never recover. I strongly disagree.
I will be the first to admit that the path to growth following the pandemic may be uneven and will almost certainly take time. But I believe in the ingenuity of innovators and entrepreneurs in the American economy, and I have been fascinated to watch as technological changes, systems, and inventions are reshaping business in new ways. The transition will take time, but I think we will see a strong economic revival when the crises fades.