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Did World War II help some countries avoid high COVID-19 deaths?

Resilience healthcare war COVID-19 coronavirus mortality

European countries with the higher WWII death rates, seem to have lower COVID-19 mortality rates. Image: Unsplash/Rianne Gerrits

Sean Fleming
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • New research looks at how major catastrophes can lead some countries to build greater resilience into their structures.
  • People who experienced World War II are more likely to display personal resilience. Better dietary habits and exercise, plus greater levels of trust, have all helped.

European countries with the highest World War II death rates tend to have lower COVID-19 mortality rates.

That’s the hypothesis put forward in "Scarred but Wiser: World War II’s COVID Legacy", a working paper from the World Bank and National Bureau of Economic Research employees. The reason for this might be that exposure to a major systemic shock, such as war or disease, can help build stronger responses to such shocks in the future.

Have you read?

This topic is of particular relevance as the world edges closer towards a post-pandemic era. With vaccination programmes under way across many parts of the world, there is a growing international call for more sustainable growth and development – much of which forms the backdrop to The Davos Agenda, 25-29 January 2021.

World War II: Looking east

In their report, the authors set out to determine whether there is a connection between the death tolls of these two major calamities. Data abounds for World War II, but much of it is based on assumptions and estimates, as war provides a poor foundation for statistical reliability.

a graph showing the comparison of covid-19 deaths and WWII fatalities in key countries
COVID-19 losses and World War 2 casualties. Image: World Bank

The country that suffered the highest number of casualties was the Soviet Union, which no longer exists and is, instead, now 15 sovereign states. This, too, makes accurate comparisons complicated.

The Soviet Union experienced a death toll in the war of perhaps as many as 27 million people. That number is made up of 11.4 million military deaths, up to 10 million civilian deaths due to military activity, and perhaps as many as 9 million more deaths caused by disease or starvation.

The three largest former Soviet republics are Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Here are their population figures, along with confirmed cases and deaths relating to COVID-19 (all COVID-19 data via Johns Hopkins University of Medicine and was accurate as per 18 January 2021).


Confirmed cases: 3.56 million

Confirmed deaths: 65,059


Confirmed cases: 1.2 million

Confirmed deaths: 21,847


Confirmed cases: 78,036

Confirmed deaths: 619

Learning from the past

“Past experience with a big shock teaches people about the gains from investing in adaptation and protection, which brings benefits if a future big shock is realized,” the report's authors write. “On the other hand, with little or no direct experience of a big shock, the expected benefits from such investments will be lower.”

Put plainly, investing in social well-being and welfare, in the aftermath of catastrophe, will have clear benefits to society. Those benefits are likely to include building housing to a higher standard, providing better healthcare, and so on. It doesn’t end there, though.

Beyond those obvious, practical benefits there exists a social cohesion that makes the citizens of that country more likely to behave in ways that minimize the impact of future shocks, according to the report.

The authors analyzed survey data from 35 countries across Europe and Central Asia and found a positive correlation between experiences of World War II and “contemporary participation in collective actions and community groups”.

They also determined that people who experienced World War II during their early years were likely to display increased “individual resilience and optimism about life, leading to a higher probability of survival”.

A global correlation

Although mostly concerned with Europe, the report’s authors also examined comparable data from other regions. Overall, they concluded that exposure to war was likely to enhance what they characterize as social cooperation. This was borne out by data from Nepal, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan and Uganda, among others.

“Our reasoning is that countries with larger prior human losses from World War II will have been more inclined to make investments that help facilitate greater willingness in the population to behave in ways that reduce the human toll of the pandemic,” the report states. “Voluntary compliance with various non-pharmaceutical interventions (a healthy diet, good sleep, exercise, etc) depends on people’s trust in each other, and the strength of the social fabric more generally.”

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