Consequences of Pandemics

Consequences of Pandemics

Health Impacts

The direct health impacts of pandemics can be catastrophic. During the Black Death, an estimated 30–50 percent of the European population perished (DeWitte 2014). More recently, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has killed more than 35 million persons since 1981 (WHO Global Health Observatory data,

Pandemics can disproportionately affect younger, more economically active segments of the population (Charu and others 2011). During influenza pandemics (as opposed to seasonal outbreaks of influenza), the morbidity and mortality age distributions shift to younger populations, because younger people have lower immunity than older people, which significantly increases the years of life lost (Viboud and others 2010). Furthermore, many infectious diseases can have chronic effects, which can become more common or widespread in the case of a pandemic. For example, Zika-associated microcephaly has lifelong impacts on health and well-being.

The indirect health impacts of pandemics can increase morbidity and mortality further. Drivers of indirect health impacts include diversion or depletion of resources to provide routine care and decreased access to routine care resulting from an inability to travel, fear, or other factors. Additionally, fear can lead to an upsurge of the “worried well” seeking unnecessary care, further burdening the health care system (Falcone and Detty 2015).

During the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, lack of routine care for malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis led to an estimated 10,600 additional deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone (Parpia and others 2016). This indirect death toll nearly equaled the 11,300 deaths directly caused by Ebola in those countries (WHO 2016a). Additionally, diversion of funds, medical resources, and personnel led to a 30 percent decrease in routine childhood immunization rates in affected countries (UNDP 2014). During the 2009 influenza pandemic, a greater surge in hospital admissions for influenza and pneumonia was associated with statistically significant increases in deaths attributable to acute myocardial infarction and stroke (Rubinson and others 2013). However, during a pandemic, distinguishing which deaths are attributable to the pandemic itself and which are merely coincidental may be impossible.

During the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, facilities closures as a result of understaffing and fear of contracting the disease played a large role in lack of access to or avoidance of routine health care. One study of 45 public facilities in Guinea found that the Ebola outbreak led to a 31 percent decrease in outpatient visits for routine maternal and child health services (Barden-O’Fallon and others 2015). Among children under age five years, hospitals witnessed a 60 percent decrease in visits for diarrhea and a 58 percent decrease in visits for acute respiratory illness (ARI), while health centers saw a 25 percent decrease in visits for diarrhea and a 23 percent decrease in visits for ARI. In Sierra Leone, visits to public facilities for reproductive health care fell by as much as 40 percent during the outbreak (UNDP 2014).

The availability of health care workers also decreases during a pandemic because of illness, deaths, and fear-driven absenteeism. Viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola take an especially severe toll on health care workers, who face significant exposure to infectious material:

  • During the first Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 (then called Zaire), the Yambuku Mission Hospital—at the epicenter of the outbreak—was closed because 11 out of the 17 staff members had died of the disease (WHO 1978).
  • During the Kikwit Ebola outbreak in 1995 in the same country, 24 percent of cases occurred among known or possible health care workers (Rosello and others 2015).
  • During the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, health care workers experienced high mortality rates: 8 percent of doctors, nurses, and midwives succumbed to Ebola in Liberia, 7 percent in Sierra Leone, and 1 percent in Guinea (Evans, Goldstein, and Popova 2015).

Even if health care workers do not die, their ability to provide care may be reduced. At the peak of a severe influenza pandemic, up to 40 percent of health care workers might be unable to report for duty because they are ill themselves, need to care for ill family members, need to care for children because of school closures, or are afraid (Falcone and Detty 2015; U.S. Homeland Security Council 2006).

Economic Impacts

Pandemics can cause acute, short-term fiscal shocks as well as longer-term damage to economic growth. Early-phase public health efforts to contain or limit outbreaks (such as tracing contacts, implementing quarantines, and isolating infectious cases) entail significant human resource and staffing costs (Achonu, Laporte, and Gardam 2005). As an outbreak grows, new facilities may need to be constructed to manage additional infectious cases; this, along with increasing demand for consumables (medical supplies, personal protective equipment, and drugs) can greatly increase health system expenditures (Herstein and others 2016).

Diminished tax revenues may exacerbate fiscal stresses caused by increased expenditures, especially in LMICs, where tax systems are weaker and government fiscal constraints are more severe. This dynamic was visible during the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic in Liberia: while response costs surged, economic activity slowed, and quarantines and curfews reduced government capacity to collect revenue (World Bank 2014).

During a mild or moderate pandemic, unaffected HICs can offset fiscal shocks by providing increased official development assistance (ODA) to affected countries, including direct budgetary support. However, during a severe pandemic where HICs confront the same fiscal stresses and may be unable or unwilling to provide assistance, LMICs could face larger budget shortfalls, potentially leading to weakened public health response or cuts in other government spending.

The direct fiscal impacts of pandemics generally are small, however, relative to the indirect damage to economic activity and growth. Negative economic growth shocks are driven directly by labor force reductions caused by sickness and mortality and indirectly by fear-induced behavioral changes. Fear manifests itself through multiple behavioral changes. As an analysis of the economic impacts of the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic noted, “Fear of association with others . . . reduces labor force participation, closes places of employment, disrupts transportation, motivates some governments to close land borders and restrict entry of citizens from affected countries, and motivates private decision makers to disrupt trade, travel, and commerce by canceling scheduled commercial flights and reducing shipping and cargo services” (World Bank 2014). These effects reduce labor force participation over and above the pandemic’s direct morbidity and mortality effects and constrict local and regional trade.

The indirect economic impact of pandemics has been quantified primarily through computable general equilibrium simulations; the empirical literature is less developed. World Bank economic simulations indicate that a severe pandemic could reduce world gross domestic product (GDP) by roughly 5 percent (Burns, Van der Mensbrugghe, and Timmer 2006). The reduction in demand caused by aversive behavior (such as the avoidance of travel, restaurants, and public spaces, as well as prophylactic workplace absenteeism) exceeds the economic impact of direct morbidity- and mortality-associated absenteeism.

These results align with country-specific estimates: an analysis of pandemic influenza’s impact on the United Kingdom found that a low-severity pandemic could reduce GDP by up to 1 percent, whereas a high-severity event could reduce GDP by 3–4 percent (Smith and others 2009). The World Bank’s estimates from the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic suggest that economic disruption in low-income countries (LICs) could be even greater. For example, the 2015 economic growth estimate for Liberia was 3 percent (against a pre-Ebola estimate of 6.8 percent); for Sierra Leone, it was −2 percent (against a pre-Ebola estimate of nearly 9 percent) (Thomas and others 2015).

Finally, estimates of fiscal and growth shocks are significant but do not include the intrinsic value of lives lost. Fan, Jamison, and Summers () consider this additional dimension of economic loss by estimating the value of excess deaths across varying levels of modeled pandemic severity, finding that the bulk of the expected annual loss from pandemics is driven by the direct cost of mortality, particularly in the case of low-probability, severe events.

During a severe pandemic, all sectors of the economy—agriculture, manufacturing, services—face disruption, potentially leading to shortages, rapid price increases for staple goods, and economic stresses for households, private firms, and governments. A sustained, severe pandemic on the scale of the 1918 influenza pandemic could cause significant and lasting economic damage.

Social and Political Impacts

Evidence suggests that epidemics and pandemics can have significant social and political consequences, creating clashes between states and citizens, eroding state capacity, driving population displacement, and heightening social tension and discrimination (Price-Smith 2009).

Severe premodern pandemics have been associated with significant social and political upheaval, driven by large mortality shocks and the resulting demographic shifts. Most notably, deaths arising from the introduction of smallpox and other diseases to the Americas led directly to the collapse of many indigenous societies and weakened the indigenous peoples’ institutions and military capacity to the extent that they became vulnerable to European conquest (Diamond 2009; see table 17.1). Subsequent pandemics have not had such dramatic effects on political and social stability, primarily because the potential mortality shock has been attenuated by improvements in prevention and care.

Evidence does suggest that epidemics and pandemics can amplify existing political tensions and spark unrest, particularly in fragile states with legacies of violence and weak institutions. During the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, steps taken to mitigate disease transmission, such as the imposition of quarantines and curfews by security forces, were viewed with suspicion by segments of the public and opposition political leaders. This led directly to riots and violent clashes with security forces (). Latent political tensions from previously warring factions in Liberia also reemerged early in the epidemic and were linked with threats to health care workers as well as attacks on public health personnel and facilities.

The Ebola epidemic also greatly amplified political tensions in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, with incumbent politicians accused of leveraging the crisis and disease control measures to cement political control and opposition figures accused of hampering disease response efforts (ICG 2015). Whereas growing tensions did not lead to large-scale political violence or instability, they did complicate public health response efforts. In Sierra Leone, quarantine in opposition-dominated regions was delayed because of concerns that it would be seen as politically motivated (ICG 2015). In countries with high levels of political polarization, recent civil war, or weak institutions, sustained outbreaks could lead to more sustained and challenging political tensions.

Pandemics also can have longer-term impacts on state capacity (Price-Smith 2001). The HIV/AIDS pandemic offers one notable example. The 1990s and early 2000s saw extremely high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates among African militaries, leading to increased absenteeism, decreased military capacity, and decreased readiness (Elbe 2002). Similar effects may occur during shorter, more acute pandemics, reducing state capacity to manage instability. The weakening of security forces can, in turn, amplify the risk of civil war and other forms of violent conflict (Fearon and Laitin 2003).

Large-scale outbreaks of infectious disease have direct and consequential social impacts. For example, widespread public panic during disease outbreaks can lead to rapid population migration. A 1994 outbreak of plague in Surat, India, caused only a small number of reported cases, but fear led some 500,000 people (roughly 20 percent of the city’s population, including a disproportionately large number of clinicians) to flee their homes (Barrett and Brown 2008). Sudden population movements can have destabilizing effects, and migrants face elevated health risks arising from poor sanitation, poor nutrition, and other stressors (Toole and Waldman 1990). Migration also poses the risk of further spreading an outbreak.

Finally, outbreaks of infectious disease can cause already vulnerable social groups, such as ethnic minority populations, to be stigmatized and blamed for the disease and its consequences (Person and others 2004). During the Black Death, Jewish communities in Europe faced discrimination, including expulsion and communal violence, because of stigma and blame for disease outbreaks (Cohn 2007). Modern outbreaks have seen more subtle forms of discrimination, such as shunning and fear, directed at minority populations linked with disease foci. For example, Africans in Hong Kong SAR, China, reported experiencing social isolation, anxiety, and economic hardship resulting from fears of their association with Ebola (Siu 2015).