Is COVID-19 worse than the Spanish Flu?

The world has seen many pandemics over the past 100 years: one of which has been the subject of much discussion given the COVID-19 outbreak, later resulting in a pandemic- the Spanish Flu of 1918.

Why is this century old influenza pandemic (Spanish Flu) suddenly attracting so much attention? Is it because history repeats itself? Or is it the human response to equate and measure one experience against another, in true binary fashion?

Both pandemics have stemmed from a ‘zoonotic spillover,’ (the transmission or crossover of a virus from an animal reservoir to humans)- Spanish influenza from aquatic birds and COVID-19 possibly originating from bats (NOT CONFIRMED).

Another commonality between the Spanish flu’s H1N1 and COVID-19 is that both are considered “novel,” new, nobody in either era had any immunity to them. The most affected groups in the 1918 pandemic were otherwise healthy adults between the ages of 20 to 40. Mortality was also higher in people younger than five years of age and 65 and older.

Caused by an H1N1 virus that originated in birds, the Spanish Flu, was first identified in the U.S. in military personnel in the spring of 1918. It was termed the Spanish flu because it was thought to have originated in Spain.

Interestingly, research published in 2005 suggests that it actually originated in New York. Spain was neutral in World War I (1914-1918), meaning it could report on the severity of the pandemic, but countries fighting the war were suppressing reports on how the disease affected their populations. Being that Spain was the only source of unbiased, credible information, the name Spanish Flu was coined.

At its worst, the Spanish flu infected 500 million people worldwide, which at the time was about a third of the Earth’s population. More than 50 million people died of the disease, with 675,000 being from the U.S. Currently, the official record for COVID-19 cases stands at just over 2 million with the number of deaths nearing 150,000.

Just like the Spanish flu, there is currently no preventive vaccine for COVID-19, and in both cases treatment was primarily supportive and aimed at alleviating symptoms. Both pandemics swamped existing health facilities.

Back in 1919, when the world hosted approximately 1.8 billion people, the Spanish flu claimed the lives of an estimated 50 million people – 2.8% of the world’s population. The effects of the virus were followed by the Great Depression’s toll on the economy, employment and the stock market. This ultimately is much worse than the damage so far inflicted by COVID-19. Will this damage be surpassed? Or will we adapt and mitigate it?

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