The Economic and Cultural Consequences of a Global Pandemic

By: Julie Schneiberg

Dating back as early as 165 A.D., there have been ten major global pandemics that have claimed the lives of millions and instilled fear in millions more, but what exactly is classified as a pandemic? According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease. Global panic has arisen as the novel coronavirus (also referred to as COVID-19), a respiratory illness, has spread from its presumed epicenter in Wuhan, China to an ever increasing number of countries around the world. As of March 11th, the CDC officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. As the world scrambles to contain the virus, one thing we can measure is how it is affecting the world we live in and how these challenges compare to those faced in previous pandemics. While there is threat of the illness itself, pandemics go far beyond medical center walls and infiltrate our economies and our cultures. 

A major threat posed by the novel coronavirus is its ability to impact the world economy, with the potential to trigger a global recession. The virus originally hit China hardest, which is home to a huge market for supply chain, shipping, and technology. With mass quarantines and vacant city centers, the Chinese market has slowed dramatically. Globalization is at its historical peak, meaning Chinese businesses and factories inevitably have major influence on industries all over the world who rely on these markets. According to an economist interviewed for the New York Times, “We’ve never been here before. Not even in wartime has an economy ground to a halt the way China’s did. And the world has never been as integrated as it is today.” However, as the disease spreads, other countries with significant importance to the global economy are also being affected. Many are taking rash, but necessary measures to control the outbreak. The countries outside of China who have been hit hardest are the United States, Italy, and Spain, all of which have now surpassed China in case numbers. Concerts, festivals, and conferences are being cancelled and many countries have made the decision to close schools and non-essential businesses, ultimately halting much of their economies. Undeniably, the coronavirus is disrupting the pace of life all over the world.

Additionally, commerce and travel industries have been hit hard. Chinese people make up a large portion of commercial and tourism clientele, and as the number of countries hit with severe outbreaks increase, so does the damage to the industry. It’s shaping out to be the worst crisis for the travel industry since 9/11. From cancelled trips of both business and leisure to travel bans, airport congestion is at an all-time low. As the disease spread around the globe, so did the restrictions on travel. Travel within much of Europe has been significantly reduced, and US president Donald Trump put a 30 day ban on travel between most of Europe and the United States. Additionally, the CDC has discouraged travel of any kind, ordering Americans to stay home.  A dip in tourism doesn’t just affect airline companies and airport staff, but the economy of the destinations of the tourists as well. Luxury brands such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci were also negatively impacted, as lines dwindled outside shops in major cities such as Paris, London, and Milan. In Thailand, tuk-tuk bikes and their drivers stand idle in normally congested tourist centers. On the Chinese-Mongolia border, Mongolian truck drivers struggle to sell their hauls. As panic sets in, stock markets have plummeted, with some of the lowest numbers recorded since the 2008 financial crisis. Amid growing anxieties about the economy, professionals attempt to predict the outcome and find solutions.

Has something like this ever happened before? Actually, yes. A similar outbreak of a respiratory disease occurred in the early 2000s. The illness called SARS, which originated in the Guangdong province of China, was classified as the first pandemic of the 21st century as it made its way through 29 countries. Therefore, can we make a prediction about how the global economy will be affected and how it will recover from such an outbreak? Kind of: China has evolved exponentially since 2002 when SARS first emerged, from the sixth largest economy to the second. The impact the shutdown of China had in 2002 was not nearly as severe as it is in 2020 because the current world of manufacturing effectively revolves around the Chinese market. The consumer market in China must also be accounted for, as the nation of 1.4 billion has a growing appetite for Apple products, Western fashion trends, and travel destinations. In addition, as the disease continues to spread more and more countries are taking expansive measures to control the outbreak. This abrupt shutdown of so many countries has never occured to such an extent. In 2002, it stung; in 2020, it will burn.

The coronavirus has had a major impact on the global economy, and the full extent of the damage is still unknown as the world struggles to contain the outbreak. However, damage caused by the illness is a cultural one, too. Asian and people of Asian-origin are experiencing elevated levels of discrimination here in the United States and around the world. Since the novel coronavirus originated in China, people are expressing their fear of the disease with discrimination and hate towards Asians. In the UK, some Chinese restaurants have struggled to get business because people fear their food is “unclean.” Asian Americans have reported numerous occurrences of verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse against them since the coronavirus emerged. Not to mention, the fact that news articles continue to use photos of Asians with masks out in the streets in their head-liners, even when talking about the rising numbers of Italians, Iranians, or Americans infected. However, incidents of xenophobia and racism amid a global health crisis are not unique. 

Other pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola are primary examples of how prejudices and health crises negatively mix. Amid the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s, the disease was heavily assosiated with homosexuality because of high levels of infection among the community, even though not all those affected were gay men. These misconceptions created a stigma towards the disease and those infected. The Ebola outbreak of 2014, originating in West Africa, led to higher levels of discrimination and violence towards Africans and African Americans. There are countless more examples of prejudices being glorified during times of anxiety surrounding a people group, country, or culture. 

Though the global impact of the coronavirus is still in the making, there have been both economic and cultural consequences of the pandemic and expectations that both will continue to grow more severe as the virus continues to spread. While we aren’t able to directly control the impact of the illness on the economy, we can remain united as humans trying to combat a disease that knows no race, no gender, and no age. Ultimately, as with any illness, the best way to combat the coronavirus is through knowledge—and by washing our hands.