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Press Release

Cleveland Fed research highlights differences between 1918 and 2020 pandemics

Caution is advised when using the 1918 influenza pandemic as a guideline for implementing and evaluating policy responses to COVID-19.

Is the 1918 influenza pandemic a good guide for how policymakers should respond to COVID-19? In this Economic Commentary, researchers Ross Cohen-Kristiansen and Roberto Pinheiro argue that analysis using the 1918 experience must make adjustments to account for the distinct features of each pandemic, including different demographic profiles of the victims and the structure of the economy.

The researchers note that the 1918 flu had a much higher mortality rate among infants and people in their prime working ages than has been the case for COVID-19, which suggests that there may be different economic outcomes between the two pandemics. Additionally, the country was still significantly more rural in 1918 than it is in 2020. Differences in where employment is concentrated—in terms of both geography and industry—have allowed COVID-19 to exact a greater toll on the labor market than it would have in 1918.

“Such differences make using the 1918 influenza pandemic a potentially problematic choice for projecting the economic impact of COVID-19 or the likely effectiveness of measures adopted to curtail the spread of the virus," say the researchers. “Considering the contrasts between the two pandemics, researchers and policymakers should exercise caution when extrapolating the economic outcomes from the 1918 flu to the current environment.”

Read more here: Different Patients, Different Economy

Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland is one of 12 regional Reserve Banks that along with the Board of Governors in Washington DC comprise the Federal Reserve System. Part of the US central bank, the Cleveland Fed participates in the formulation of our nation’s monetary policy, supervises banking organizations, provides payment and other services to financial institutions and to the US Treasury, and performs many activities that support Federal Reserve operations System-wide. In addition, the Bank supports the well-being of communities across the Fourth Federal Reserve District through a wide array of research, outreach, and educational activities.

The Cleveland Fed, with branches in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, serves an area that comprises Ohio, western Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky, and the northern panhandle of West Virginia.

Media contact

Doug Campbell,, 513.455.4479