Some Good Can Come From Swine Flu

A very common ailment in Korean summers and falls is pinkeye (conjunctivitis), and the problem had been getting much worse in the past two years. My Korean co-author tells me, however, that the H1N1 virus has created a positive externality in Korea.

These days, people are encouraged to wash their hands more frequently, and they appear to be doing it. That has sharply reduced cases of pinkeye. On net, I imagine that the economic costs of the swine-flu epidemic exceed the costs of the pinkeye outbreak. Nonetheless, it’s always nice to note the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud. I wonder how many other examples there are of positive externalities arising out of negative shocks.

(Hat tip: J.L.)


It has been a number of years since I've had to worry about the shampoo bottle in my carry-on baggage leaking its contents all over the rest of my personal belongings.


I'm hoping other good things will come of this epidemic and the discussions surrounding it: increased attention to health care and the lack of things like sick days for a whole lot of Americans, including some who take care of children/the elderly and serve food; improved access to handwashing facilities which can reduce other illnesses; and just a general look at our culture's self-defeating "just work through it" attitude towards illness. The research that may come out about transmission and behavior of influenza is interesting, too.


most major tragedies (9/11, Columbine, etc) result in a temporary but very noticeable increase in church attendance and interest in religious matters. (I assume, though I don't know, that synagogues, mosques, etc see a similar pattern.) Whether this is a positive or a negative externality, of course, depends on your opinion of organized religion.

Eric M. Jones

"Positive Externalities" are everywhere, but one imagines that these are often just people making the best of a bad situation--(e.g.) During the depression of the early 1930's people without jobs stayed in school--so when WWII came along there was an abundance of educated people to design, build and operate war machinery.

But on the other hand, the depression was one of the causes of WWII...and we might have colonized Mars by 1960 without it.


Now I'm curious as to why Korea would have more problems with pink-eye than other countries.


@4, Eric Jones - If you're implying that without WWII we might've been able to go to Mars, note that much of the rocket technology essential to space exploration was born out of WWII nuclear research.

gevin shaw

So, when it's good, it's a positive externality; when it's bad, it's an unintended consequence?

The need to keep millions of returning American soldiers from flooding the labour market after WWII inspired the G.I. Bill to send many of them to school instead.

The distributive network designed so military computers could survive a nuclear attack gave us the internet.

I'm not sure that better hygiene and health is an externality of a program to educate people in better hygiene and health. We may be seeing a different cost (the time and trouble of washing your hands)/benefit (not dying rather than not having an itchy inflamed eye) analysis, or just the result of increased resources be put into education on the subject.


@6: Arvin, that's exactly Eric's point. The same research could have been targeted at other technological challenges like space exploration...

Eric M. Jones

--#6 Arvin:

I don't think you mean nuclear research. Virtually all the WWII rocketry research was finalized by 1939 in the powers who fought the war.

But I don't mean to distract from the discussion, I'm just saying that the world might have gone in some amazing directions if WWII had been avoided.

Imad Qureshi

Not really an externality but Americans are saving more due to current economic crises. Now that might sound good but we need spending at this time. So actually a negative externality out of something positive.


It would be particularly interesting from a Machiavellian point of view if the positive externality were greater than the cost.

Chris in South Korea

#5: As an English teacher in Korea, I can tell you why: Kids don't wash their hands. At least before the swine flu. Now, there's a sign showing the SIX-STEP PROCESS (in the local language, of course) showing everyone old and young how to Wash Your Hands. A number of us in the Korean blogging community have laughed at the about-face, although we tend to appreciate the causality of things: a flu threatens, and everyone suddenly believes that being clean will keep you safe.

It's also forced schools to actually stock their bathrooms instead of viewing the areas as places the kids mess up that they have to clean. When parents complain (ESPECIALLY at private English schools), stuff gets done. Suddenly there's soap, toilet paper (I am NOT making this up), and they're checked with some regularity.

The next challenge: getting over the hysteria that foreigners living in Korea are infected with H1N1 because we cough / sniffle / sneeze / touch ourselves. Oh yes, and NOT using the same ear thermometer to check all the kids temperatures without cleaning it between kids. Again, NOT making this up.



In Pune, India there were maximum number of swine flu cases In India, which started in high schools with kids returning from US/UK summer trips. There is positive effect on people protecting themseves in public by wearing masks and hand washing. Doctors think is good measure for spread of TB. Also, there is less spitting on streets. There is now also a heavy (Rs 1000) fine for spitting !! As TB infection is a major problem in in India, such awareness about mixing in public will certainly help against the spread of airborne deseases.


Losing a job teaches some people that wealth ultimately comes from spending less than you earn instead of from the lottery ("tax on people who are bad at math") or other get-rich-quick schemes.

Seeing several valuable co-workers lose their jobs in a company-wide RIF will probably have a permanent and positive effect on one of my young relatives, making her both financially prudent in everyday matters, in possession of a written financial plan that she's already taking concrete steps to implement, and determined to make sure her boss has no possible cause to put her name on the next list.

Nothing makes me quite so happy as hearing a 20-something talk about her goals for her 401(k) plan when so many of her peers are talking about their Macy's credit cards.


I work in sales for a chemical company, and my revenues have increased nicely with clients purchasing soap, sanitizers, dispensers, and cleansers with the virus kill claim on them... So far its a positive experience!