What we can learn about COVID-19 from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918

The COVID-19 pandemic torpedoed across the globe – leaving widespread death, economic crises, and confusion in its wake. It’s a distinctive period that so many experts have compared to the Spanish flu of 1918.

“Was a once in a century pandemic when it occurred, was also a respiratory disease, was also a disease that spread with human mobility and migration and had really alarming fatality rates, said Dr.  Mari Webel, assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburg.

Dr. Webel co-authored an article that warns its readers to compare the two pandemics with caution. Dr. Webel says influenzas are seasonal and the Spanish flu came in dramatic waves. We still don’t know if COVID-19 will follow a similar course.  

"Thinking of the disease in waves also encourages people to think of this is something that’s predictable – but COVID-19 it’s not predictable in the same way as seasonal influenza might be,” said Dr. Webel.

Another distinction-- there were fewer than 2 billion people in the world in 1918. Now, there are 7.5 billion.

“I think the biggest difference is the interconnectedness and the density of human and animal populations,” said Olga Jonas, a senior fellow with the Harvard Global Health Institute.

In 1918, there was no mass air travel, so the Spanish flu spread more slowly across the globe, yet it was still more deadly. Between 50 and 100 million people died within two years from the Spanish flu. So far with COVID-19, there have been more than 430,000 deaths reported worldwide.

“What’s interesting is how little progress we have made, we have known about diseases that originate in animals that can jump into humans. Those have been known for more than a hundred years,” said Jonas.

She thinks our government should have been more prepared and should have taken action sooner. Jonas expects it could take years to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Only time will tell.


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