Vilfredo Pareto Research Seminar
Alfani Guido

Epidemics, Inequality and Poverty: from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu

Guido Alfani, Professor of Economic History, Bocconi University, Milan
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Room S4, Maison de la paix, Geneva

The Vilfredo Pareto Research Seminar is the Economics department's weekly seminar, featuring external speakers in all areas of economics.

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As part of the Vilfredo Pareto Research Seminar series, the International Economics Department at the Geneva Graduate Institute is pleased to invite you to a public talk given by Guido Alfani.

He will present his work titled Epidemics, Inequality and Poverty: from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu

Abstract: Recent research has explored the distributive consequences of major historical epidemics, and the current crisis triggered by Covid-19 prompts us to look at the past for insights about how pandemics can affect inequalities in income, wealth, and health. The fourteenth-century Black Death, which is usually believed to have led to a significant reduction in economic inequality, has attracted the greatest attention – but the picture becomes much more complex if other epidemics are considered. This seminar covers the worst epidemics of preindustrial times, usually caused by plague, as well as the cholera waves of the nineteenth century and the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-19. It shows how the distributive outcomes of lethal epidemics do not only depend upon mortality rates, but are mediated by a range of factors, chief among them the institutional framework in place at the onset of each crisis. It then explores how past epidemics affected poverty, arguing that highly lethal epidemics could reduce its prevalence through two deeply different mechanisms: redistribution towards the poor, or extermination of the poor.

For those interested, the full paper is available here.


About the speaker

Guido Alfani is a full professor of Economic History at Bocconi University, Milan. His areas of interest include economic history and demography, with a focus on long-term dynamics, on economic inequality and social mobility, and on the history of epidemics and pandemics.

He is also an Affiliated Scholar of the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality (New York, U.S.); a Research Fellow of CEPR - Center for Economic Policy and Research (London, U.K.) and a Research Associate of CAGE - Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (Warwick, U.K.). At Bocconi University, he is a member of the Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and of IGIER (Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research).