The Effect of Pandemics on Employment Throughout History

The Effect of Pandemics on Employment Throughout History

Throughout history there have been many pandemics that have affected humanity. Each outbreak had an adverse effect on the economies and the employment market. The Antonine plague, the Bubonic plague, and the Spanish flu, some of the worst pandemics in human history, resulted in millions of deaths, thereby increasing the need for able bodied workers and labor. In contrast, the Covid-19 pandemic caused the opposite, a spike in unemployment, killing jobs and businesses.

Effects of Covid-19 on US Employment

The unemployment rate rose from 4.4 percent in March to 14.7 percent in April. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, civilian unemployment was at the highest it had been in the last 20 years.[1] At the same time, the labor force participation rate was at an all-time low of 60.2%.[2]

Overall Covid-19’s effect on the economy has been a big spike in unemployment and closure of many privately owned businesses. Notably, restaurant, retail, and hospitality related businesses were most affected.[3]

The Antonine Plague (165-180 C.E.)

It is estimated that some 60-70 million people died in the Roman Empire from the Antonine Plague. This had a major impact, weakening its military and significantly damaging its economy.[4] Due to the massive death toll there was reduction in the empire’s available workforce. At the same time, it caused an increase in labor demand and unemployment was very low, creating opportunity in the economy.

The Bubonic Plague (1347-1353)

The Bubonic Plague decimated whole communities throughout the middle ages. It is estimated the plague killed as many as 50 million people before it subsided.[5] This had a tremendous impact on the economy of the era. So much of the workforce was depleted, that laborers were forced by law to work.

The Statutes of Laborers issued in 1351 in England, required any healthy unemployed person to work for anyone willing to hire them. Those who refused employment were punished with time in the stockades.[6] The Bubonic Plague caused a need for employees to the point where healthy people were required by law to work.

The Spanish Flu (1918-1920)

The Spanish Flu is estimated to have killed about 40 million people worldwide and 675,000 people in the US. The impact of the Spanish Flu on the US economy was extraordinary. The virus killed more healthy people with strong immune systems than it did people with weak immune systems. According to Thomas A. Garrett, males aged 18 to 40 were the hardest hit. This significantly reduced the workforce since men at the time were the primary source of labor.[7] This of course created a demand for employees, thereby again increasing the labor force participation rate and reducing the unemployment rate.


While the Antonine Plague, Bubonic Plague, and Spanish Flu were far more deadly than Covid-19, their effect on the economy resulted in more available jobs. Covid-19 has been unlike other mass pandemics in history. Instead of killing the workforce as other pandemics did before it, Covid-19 is killing jobs and businesses.

[1] Civilian unemployment rate. (2020). Retrieved 2020, from

[2] Civilian labor force participation rate. (2020). Retrieved 2020, from

[3] Bialik, C., & Gole, D. (2020, September). Yelp: Local Economic Impact Report. Retrieved 2020, from

[4] Horgen, J. (2019). Antonine Plague. Retrieved 2020, from

[5] Andrews, E. (2016). 6 Devastating Plagues. Retrieved 2020, from

[6] Henderson, E. F. (2008). The Statute of Laborers; 1351. Retrieved November 24, 2020, from Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages London: George Bell and Sons, 1896.

[7] Garrett, T. A. (2007). Economic Effects of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Implications for a Modern-day Pandemic. Retrieved 2020, from  Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

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