• Bernhardt Wealth Management

How Bad Is the COVID-19 Pandemic? A Historical Perspective

In our financial and investment counseling work with clients, we often use historical research to provide context and background for current market and economic conditions. In fact, when we are looking at almost any current situation or problem, it helps to remember the lessons we can learn from history. Though every circumstance is unique, remembering the lessons of the past is almost always a good idea.

With that in mind, it might be instructive to put the current COVID-19 pandemic in historical perspective. Recently, Time Magazine offered an updated list of the worst U.S. death tolls from major historical events. You might be surprised to know that the coronavirus death toll currently ranks number four on the list.


Number one was the last terrible flu pandemic, which raged across the world from 1918–1919, claiming 675,000 American lives. Number two was the American Civil War, which resulted in 620,000 Union and Confederate deaths, many of them from disease rather than actual fighting.


World War II claimed the lives of 405,399 American service personnel.


COVID-19 has a current death toll of 254,000 and climbing here in the U.S. We can only hope that the final tally will not be greatly more than that.


Fifth? World War I, with 116,516 American deaths. Right behind that is the 1957–58 flu epidemic, with an estimated 116,000 casualties.


The 1968 flu pandemic follows in seventh place, claiming an estimated 100,000 lives. The Vietnam War (58,220), the Korean War (36,574) and the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic (12,469) round out the top ten. The Revolutionary War, with just 4,435 American lives lost (though “America” technically didn’t exist yet) and the tragic September 11, 2001 attack (2,977 lives lost) are down the list.


If you take into consideration global catastrophes, then we get a sense of how fortunate Americans have been, historically. Somewhere between 60 million and 85 million people died worldwide in World War II, and another 40 million died in China during the civil wars that ravaged that country from about 220 to 280 A.D. The Mongol invasions of Asia and the edges of Europe killed an estimated 50 million people. The conquests of Tamerlane killed an estimated 5% of all the world’s population at the time, and the Black Plague (bubonic plague) killed almost a third of the European population—a total of between 75 million and 200 million people worldwide.


By any measure, we are living through a historically challenging period in American life. The final count will depend on a number of factors and when a vaccine is released.


Perhaps this admittedly somber outlook is appropriate, even as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday. As you make your own decisions about how to gather appropriately and safely, please give careful thought to your own health and that of those with whom you will come into contact, both directly and indirectly. And despite the limitations of the pandemic, may you and those important to you be enriched by knowledge of love and caring, warm memories of seasons past, and hope for better and more enjoyable times in the future! All of us here at Bernhardt Wealth Management wish you and yours a happy, safe, and healthy Thanksgiving.


Buen Camino!


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