Global Outbreaks and Economic Results in History

The global epidemic we are experiencing is not the first global epidemic in world history. In addition to many regional epidemics in the history of the world, there were many global or transcontinental epidemics. Three of them are prominent, including the Eastern Mediterranean-Middle East region. Starting in the 6th century BC and lasting until the 8th century, the Justinian Plague is the Black Plague and the Spanish Flu, which started in the middle of the 14th century and returned to the second quarter of the 19th century, and spread throughout the world. Each of these three global outbreaks has killed tens of millions of people.

As it is today, past global outbreaks had significant economic consequences besides loss of lives. Since the Spanish Flu ended shortly, its medium and long-term economic results were limited. On the other hand, since plague epidemics in previous periods continued for centuries, they had important economic consequences in the medium and long term. The economic consequences of these two global plague epidemics, especially the latter that began in the 14th century, have been studied and continue to be studied by economic historians in recent years. In this article, we will discuss the medium and long-term economic consequences of two global plague epidemics.

Two Global Outbreaks

Since the Byzantine Emperor began in the Justinian period, the Justinian Plague, which took its name, started in 541. The epidemic, whose origins are predicted to be in East Asia, has repeatedly been on the scene for the next two centuries and, according to some sources, for three centuries, and has been effective not only in the Byzantine Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East regions but also in the Western Mediterranean region and extended to England. Justinian Plague also led to important political developments. For example, due to the large population losses and the impact of the economy, the weak thought of the Byzantine State made it easier for Islamic armies that were less affected by the plague in the Arabian peninsula to spread rapidly to Syria and Egypt. Our information about the Black Plague, which started in the 14th century, is more detailed. The Black Plague was spread by a different sub-type of bacteria that caused the Justinian Plague. It is known that the epidemic started in South and Southeast Asia in China in the 1330s and reached Crimea in 1346. Reaching Constantinople, Egypt and Syria from Crimea through merchant ships, the Black Plague later spread across Sicily from the north of Africa and across the European continent to Europe and England, in a few years, via Southern and Western Europe. About a third of the total population died in Egypt and then in Europe in a short period of time due to the epidemic. The Black Plague continued to occur in Western and Southern Europe until the late 17th century, early 18th century, and until the 1840s in the Eastern Mediterranean and Ottoman Empire, causing massive population losses. The Black Plague is estimated to have killed 75 million people. It took two centuries for the European continent’s population to return to its levels in the 1340s. In the Eastern Mediterranean and the Ottoman Empire, the total population increased very little until the second half of the 19th century due to the Black Plague.

The bacteria that caused the Black Plague launched a new outbreak this time called the Hong Kong Plague in 1894. The epidemic has spread all over the world, but the damage it has caused remains more limited.

Ottoman historians have not been interested in the Black Plague so far. However, considering the Black Plague and increasing our knowledge on this subject, different interpretations on many issues related to the Ottoman history can come to the agenda.

Economic Results

Two global epidemics, each of which lasted for centuries, had significant economic consequences in both the medium and long term. Large population losses caused by frequent outbreaks have led to major changes in both economic activity and income distribution. Due to the decline in demand, the prices of grains and agricultural goods in general fell due to the declining demand, as a large part of the working-age population died. On the other hand, wages doubled due to labor shortages, and prices of manufactured goods rose. Thus, while the income of agricultural producers and especially landowners decreased, labor income increased. Interest rates also decreased due to the decrease in investments. Since the goods of the deceased passed to the survivors of the survivors, the surviving population increased their income and living standards thanks to both their wages and the take over of the deceased. Increasing revenues increased demand for manufactured goods in the city’s economy and luxury consumer goods, some of which were imported. Economic historians think that these two global plague epidemics, which have killed tens of millions of people, have had significant consequences in the long run. For example, after the Justinian Plague, the high wage environment caused by large population losses and low remaining birth rates supported economic development in the early centuries of Islamic history by increasing the demand for higher prices and promoting the production of these goods. In this period, which is known as the Golden Age of Islam, high wages led to the cultivation of new plants brought from other parts of the world in Mesopotamian plains and increased productivity in agriculture. The demand created by high wages and high incomes in the urban economy also led to technological developments in the production of manufactured goods, for example, the widespread use of paper and the writing of many books, the revival in long-distance trade and the increase in imports of luxury goods from China and India.

However, the long-term outcomes of long-term outbreaks have not been the same in every country. For example, Black Death, which started in the 14th century, accelerated some developments in countries that are already on the path of long-term economic development in Western Europe, while their results in other regions remained limited or different. The Black Plague has increased the bargaining power of labor in many places while reducing the power of landowners. Thus, it played an important role in the decline and resolution of feudalism in the Western Europe, especially in England, since the 14th century. The shortage of labor caused by the Black Plague and the high wage environment are thought to accelerate the developments leading to industrial capitalism in England and the Netherlands in the following period. On the other hand, the positive economic results of the Black Plague in Italy, Spain and Egypt and the Byzantine State, which had weakened a lot at the time, were not seen.

Precautions Reminding the War Periods in the Economy

Long-term global outbreaks affecting a significant part of the world population can interact with existing structures and produce permanent and important results. In addition to the short-term economic destruction, the global epidemic should be expected to have long-term consequences. It may be too early to discuss these long-term results. However, the Covid-19 outbreak already seems to have permanent implications for the extent and scope of state interventionism.

The power of the state and its share in the economy remained very small in previous periods of global epidemic. Therefore, the state’s role in the economy in the plague epidemics and the Spanish flu epidemic did not come up. The deep economic crisis in the 1930s and the theory developed by John Maynard Keynes in those conditions brought state interventionism to a new stage in developed countries after the Second World War. However, in the following decades an opposition arose against the expansion of the scope of state interventionism.

In recent weeks, parliaments and governments in both the U.S. and European countries have seemed united in the fight against the economic effects of the epidemic, as in a war period, to do everything necessary. The state support packages, which have been unprecedented in history except for long-term war periods, have been suggested that the global epidemic that we are living in will have important economic consequences in the long term and a new era has begun regarding the place and scope of state intervention in developed capitalist economies.


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