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.)

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  1. Ryan says:

    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.

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  2. rda says:

    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.

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  3. Caitlyn says:

    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.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    “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.

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  5. Ryan says:

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

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  6. Arvin says:

    @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.

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  7. gevin shaw says:

    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.

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  8. naskar says:

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

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