The redistributive effects of pandemics: Evidence on the Spanish flu Articles uri icon

publication date

  • January 2021

start page

  • 1

end page

  • 17


  • 105389


  • 141

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1873-5991

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 0305-750X


  • Which are the effects of pandemics on the returns to factors of production? Are these effects persistent over time? These questions have received renewed interest after the out-burst of deaths caused by Covid-19. The Spanish Flu is the closest pandemic to Covid-19. In this paper, we analyze the impact of the Spanish Flu on the returns to labor and capital in Spain. Spain is an ideal country to perform this exercise. First, the 'excess death rate' was one of the largest in Western Europe and it varied substantially across regions. Second, Spain was transitioning towards industrialization, with regions in different stages of development. Third, Spain was developed enough to have reliable data. We identify the effect of the Spanish Flu by exploiting within-country variation in 'excess death rate'. Our main result is that the effect of the Spanish Flu on daily real wages was large, negative, and broadly short-lived. The effects are heterogeneous across occupations and regions. The negative effects are exacerbated in (i) occupations producing non-essential goods like shoemakers and (ii) more urbanized provinces. Quantitatively, relative to pre-1918, the decline for the average region ranges from null to around 30 percent. In addition, we fail to find significant negative effects of the flu on returns to capital. Whereas the results for dividends are imprecisely estimated (we cannot reject a null effect), the effect on real estate prices (houses and land), driven by the post-1918 recovery, is positive. Experts on inequality have argued that pandemics have equalizing effects especially in a Malthusian setting, due to real wage increases. Our findings suggest that, at least, for a developing economy like Spain in the early 20th century, this result does not apply. Indeed, we document that the flu pandemic was conducive to a (short-run) reduction in real wages. In addition, we interpret our heterogeneous results as suggestive evidence that pandemics represent a demand shock.


  • Economics


  • pandemics; real wages; returns to capital; spanish flu