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How Amsterdam Recovered From a Deadly Outbreak — in 1665

(This is the first of three stories that look at how cities and their economies recovered from historic epidemics.)

For two years in the mid-1600s, Amsterdam experienced a shock that may now seem familiar.

The city was ravaged by a deadly epidemic of bubonic plague. As graveyards in poorer districts started to fill, the wealthy scattered to their country houses, while those that remained did their best to keep healthy through social distancing. Sick people were banned from markets, inns and churches, while infected houses warned off visitors with a sign hung outside — a bunch of straw tied with three bands. These measures may have helped, but they weren’t enough to stop the plague. By the time the epidemic petered out in 1665, the disease had claimed 24,000 Amsterdammers — around 10% of the population. 

In percentage terms, Amsterdam’s brush with the plague was more deadly than anything coronavirus has yet caused. But the experiences of the 17th century still uncomfortably echo those of many cities in the 21st: a highly contagious disease stalling the economy, highlighting social inequality, restricting travel and obligating citizens to curb their interactions with each other.

As some parts of the world tentatively enter the coronavirus recovery period, a new study examining Amsterdam’s post-epidemic return to normality might also foreshadow what contemporary cities can expect in the near future. By looking at the 17th century housing market, the study finds that prices did indeed dip sharply as the economy floundered during the plague seasons. As death rates fell, however, things stabilized with surprising speed, followed by a period of urban innovation that ultimately had positive effects.

The study, which also examines the economic effect of cholera in 19th century Paris, complicates the vision of how cities have been affected historically by epidemics. It shows that rather than being waylaid, cities can actually prosper after serious health crises. They do so, the study suggests, partly because the shock can force through changes that create better living conditions more conducive to prosperity.

Written by Amsterdam Business School’s Marc Francke and Erasmus School of Economics’ Matthijs Korevaar, and published in the Journal of Urban Economics, the study suggests that Amsterdam swiftly recovered its pre-epidemic population — and its economy — by attracting migrants. According to the researchers, the lessons behind the rebound of this growing metropolis might best be applied to developing cities and countries with stark societal inequalities and limited government support,  rather than the contemporary Netherlands. 

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab