Plague of Justinian

Why the Wealthy Fear Pandemics

April 09, 2020
Walter Scheidel
This is a summary of an article originally published by the New York Times with the subheading: "The coronavirus, like other plagues before it, could shift the balance between rich and poor."

The author argues that, like past pandemics, the coronavirus pandemic could have an “impact [that] goes well beyond lives lost and commerce curtailed.” Historical pandemics have often resulted in a fundamental “shift in the balance between labor and capital” by changing the size of the labor force and shifting the dynamics of the markets for land, giving more power to laborers and peasants while shrinking wealth inequality. That said, the author acknowledges that labor “won’t become scarce enough to drive up wages, nor will the value of real estate plummet” as a result of this crisis. Although the coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to cause shifts as dramatic as medieval calamities like the bubonic plague, the crisis could “prompt redistributive reforms akin to those triggered by the Great Depression and World War II, unless entrenched interests prove too powerful to overcome.”

Read the full article at the New York Times.


Walter Scheidel

Walter Scheidel is a professor of classics and history at Stanford University.

Image in the public domain.