How does the current global pandemic compare with the influenza pandemic of 1918?

The influenza pandemic is usually called the Spanish flu. However, it was only called that because it came to the attention of the media more in Spain since this country was neutral and had a freer media than the Great War combatant nations of Britain, France and Germany where the flu was initially prevalent.

We don’t know for sure the origin of that pandemic but recent research suggests that it might have been a military establishment in the USA. It is highly likely that Covid-19 originated in Wuhan in China, but we can’t yet be totally certain of that. The virus might have been present in other countries before being detected in China.

The technical term for so-called Spanish flu was the H1N1 influenza virus. The technical term for the coronavirus currently rampaging through the world is SARS-CoV-2.

The Spanish flu lasted from February 1918 to April 1920, so approximately two years. The current pandemic started in December 2019 and therefore, so far, it has been running for almost a year and a half.

The Spanish flu infected around 500 million people which was about a third of the world’s population at the time. So far, Covid-19 is believed to have infected 127 million out of a current world population of 7.9 billion .

We don’t know the death toll from the Spanish flu. It is usually estimated as between 20 – 50 million, but the lowest estimate is 17 million and the highest is 100 million. The current pandemic is far from over but currently the death toll stands at 2.78 million.

The flu of 1918-1920 was experienced in four successive waves. The present pandemic is not over, but the UK and USA have had two waves and much of Europe is currently experiencing a third wave.

Most flu epidemics disproportionately kill the very young and the very old, but the Spanish flu caused a higher than expected mortality rate for young adults aged 20-40. So far, Covid-19 has disproportionately killed the over 70s.

In 1918-1920, there were no antiviral drugs and no vaccines. Already a range of treatments exist for Covid-19 and a number of different vaccines have already been developed and approved.

A final thought: the Spanish flu may have killed as many as the Great War, almost every town and village in Britain and France has a memorial to the war dead, but when was the last time you saw a memorial anywhere to the flu victims of 1918-1920? Indeed the event hardly seems to figure in history books or people’s consciousness. Which begs the question: how will the pandemic of 2019-2021(?) be remembered and memorialised?


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