Will the coronavirus permanently change behaviours?

If social distancing were practised for many years, either because it was enforced by governments or fears of future waves of the virus prompted people to implement it anyway, then most of the recent changes to the way we spend, socialise and work will probably be in place for many years too. But if the virus and social distancing fade out, then most of the behavioural changes that require people to stay one or two metres apart will be reversed quickly. Right now it may feel like that old world has disappeared forever. But the historical evidence suggests that after previous significant events, such as pandemics, plagues and terrorist attacks, people reverted to their previous behaviours often within three to six months.

Lessons from history

We noted right at the start that whether or not these changes prove to be temporary or permanent mostly depends on the evolution of the virus and how long social distancing is required or practised. It also depends on the willingness of households to get back to “normal”.

SARS pandemic

The SARS pandemic was shorter, more confined and less lethal than the coronavirus pandemic. It lasted from November 2002 to July 2003, was largely restricted to small parts of Asia and North America and led to around 9,000 deaths in total.

Activity in sectors exposed to travel and socialising slumped in those countries affected by SARS. For example, the number of international passengers entering Hong Kong fell by 70% from February 2003 to May 2003.The hotel occupancy rate in Hong Kong plummeted from 89% in December 2002 to 17% in May 2003. And retail sales in Hong Kong fell by 13% between January 2003 and April 2003.

But there was no clear long-term influence on economic behaviour, mainly because the pandemic was so short and was contained quickly. Indeed, by August, just three months after the low point, the number of international passenger arrivals into Hong Kong rebounded to the level seen before the pandemic. Both occupancy rates and retail sales had risen back to their previous highs by August too.

The impact on public health was bigger. Wearing masks in public became more socially acceptable and governments invested a lot more time and money into preparing for pandemics. That goes someway to explaining why the countries that were hit by SARS have done a better job of containing the coronavirus outbreak.

Terrorist attacks

Terrorists attacks are not the same as pandemics, but they have similar characteristics in that they are often a shock, involve the loss of life and/or the risk of loss of life, and can linger in the mind for a long time.

The terrorist attacks in London on 7th July 2005, which targeted commuters on buses and tubes during the morning rush hour, killed 52 people and injured 700. In the month after the attacks, the number of passengers travelling on the London Underground fell by 15%. But that decline was reversed in the following two months and tube usage returned to normal thereafter.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001, which killed 2,977 people and caused over 25,000 injuries, the number of passengers travelling on domestic and international US flights fell by 32%.And it took two years for flights to return to the level seen before the attacks. But even that seems quite quick given that these attacks forever changed the perceived risks involved with flying.

The Black Death

Unfortunately, the lack of reliable data means it is hard to judge how previous pandemics, such as the 1968 flu outbreak and the Spanish flu of 1918/19, have influenced behaviour. But some published works provide some insight into the changes in behaviours after the Black Death, which peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351, and the Great Plague of London in 1665/66.

It is thought that the Black Death wiped out around 50% of the population in Europe. In an article about his book on the Black Death, “The Scourging Angel”, Ben Gummer notes that in 1349 the UK “economy rapidly collapsed, workers who were not dead stayed at home for fear of infection, crops rotted in the fields and those willing to work would only do so at an extortionate price”.

He goes on to say that lockdowns became common, with Gloucester, which was near to the first urban hotspot of Bristol, closing its city gates.

But Gummer also highlights that society began rebuilding fairly quickly. He says that “huge swathes of land, through inheritance and forced sales, changed hands. People lost their families but gained a legacy”. And widowed men and women hastily remarried, “desperate to maintain the security that marriage then ensured”.

He admits that the quotation “Millions dead: things go on as before” hardly entices people to read his work. But he concludes that “by and large, the great arc of history was unbent by the Great Death”.

The Great Plague

“The Diary of Samuel Pepys” provides a much more detailed insight into the precise behavioural changes of its author during the Great Plague of 1665/66.

Pepys was acutely aware of the plague, which was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plagues in England and killed 100,000 of the population of the City of London in the 12 months from April 1665.As that was equivalent to a quarter of the population of London, it was far worse than today’s coronavirus.

He first mentioned the plague in his diary on 30th April 1665 when he noted “Great fears of the sicknesse[sic]here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all!”. In that quote Pepys was referring to the rule that the house of anyone with the plague was shut for 40 days with the family inside, marked with a cross and guarded by watchmen.

His diaries document how commercial activity declined during the plague. On 22nd July, Pepys said “the streets[were]mighty thin of people. “And two months later, when deaths were peaking, the number of references in his diaries to the “Royal Exchange “plunged. That suggested Pepys’, who did enjoy shopping for suits and wigs, was hardly visiting that prominent shopping area.

But by the time the plague was petering out towards the end of the year, on 13th December Pepys noted that “the town do thicken so much with people”. On 31st December, he wrote that “the town fills a pace, and shops begin to be open again”. And at the same time, the number of references to the Royal Exchange rose back to the pre-plague level. (See Chart 18.)

Admittedly, Pepys’ referred to the Royal Exchange much less in 1666 and in 1667. But that appears to be partly because he started shopping elsewhere and partly because the Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in September 1666. So we don’t think this is conclusive evidence that the plague permanently reduced his desire to spend.

If that was the case, then surely he would have gone to the pub less. But in fact, he continued to visit London’s taverns during the worst of the plague, albeit less often, despite the risks. The number of times he referred to a tavern fell from an average of 4 times a month before the plague to just once in October 1665. But it bounced back to 4 times a month in November 1665, to 8 times in December 1665 and remained well above the pre-plague average for the next 18 months.

On 16th February 1666, Pepys noted when he went to a coffee house that it was “very full, and company it seems hath been there all the plague time”. So it appears as though some pubs and cafes stayed opened during the plague and they were busy six months or so after the number of deaths peaked. In fact, Pepys suggested they were so packed that it seemed as though the plague never really existed.

And when taken together with the observations after the Black Death, SARS and the UK and US terrorist attacks in the 2000s, the main message is that people tend to revert to their previous behaviours quickly. Often, things are back to normal after about six months.

This is taken from the views and independent research of Capital Economics