Recessions and mortality: a global perspective

BIS Working Papers  |  No 910  | 
15 December 2020



The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the most severe contraction in global economic activity in post-WWII history. Strikingly, countries with a steeper predicted GDP decline in 2020 also have seen a higher number of deaths in excess of Covid-19-related fatalities, especially among emerging market economies (EMEs). As a possible explanation for the pattern, this paper investigates the link between recessions and mortality using historical data covering 180 countries over six decades.


In analysing the link between recessions and mortality, this paper covers an aspect of the pandemic that has so far been missing in the public debate: if a recession-mortality nexus exists, then the apparent trade-off between saving lives from the pandemic and sacrificing incomes in virus containment policies could be more complex. By exploring the issue for a large number of advanced economies (AEs) and EMEs, the paper also contributes to the literature on the health effects of economic fluctuations, which has so far mainly focused on the richest economies.


We find that recessions are associated with a sizeable and highly significant increase in mortality. Specifically, recessions increase mortality rates primarily in EMEs – and within EMEs, child mortality rates in particular. We further find that the deeper the recession, the larger the increase in mortality rates among EMEs. Importantly, recessions cast a long shadow: they lead to significantly higher death rates for up to 10 years and higher child mortality rates for up to 12 years. Our results imply that the death toll of the pandemic probably exceeds that directly attributable to the disease. Given the recession-mortality nexus, lockdown policies may be more effective in reducing mortality rates if they consider their direct economic consequences. Finally, monetary and fiscal policy measures mitigating the length or depth of the recession may also reduce mortality.


Using panel data covering 180 countries over six decades, this paper shows that recessions are systematically associated with higher mortality rates. During years when GDP falls, death rates rise, primarily in emerging market and developing economies and there among children in particular. In advanced economies, death rates increase only slightly. We further nd that the scarring effects of recessions persist for several years and that deeper recessions lead to larger increases in mortality. In contrast, booms or periods of subdued growth are not associated with a marked decline in death rates. Our ndings have implications for the policy response to Covid-19 and suggest that the eventual death toll of the pandemic may be understated if the impact of the coronavirus recession is neglected.

JEL Codes: H12, I10, I18, E32

Keywords: recession, mortality, pandemic, virus containment, lockdown, Covid-19