It has been said that history repeats itself. Today, is no different. The epidemic (dare I say pandemic?!) is being very closely compared to the Spanish Flu of 1918. There are some key differences, mainly who the Spanish flu killed vs. the primary death group of Covid-19. We will touch on a few more of the differences a little later in the article.
The Spanish Flu began in 1918 and devastated the world. It killed between 20 million and anywhere from 50 up to 100 million people (depending on what research you go by). It is estimated that 500 million people were infected by the virus worldwide. Although the virus became decreasingly more predominant, the Spanish flu was still active until the mid 1920’s.
Like Covid-19, the Spanish flu was made worse by travel, mainly the returning troops coming back from Europe in the first world war. In 1918, travel was done by ships, so the spread of the virus was not nearly as fast as it is today. With air travel, viruses can spread to other countries and continents in a matter of hours! Making Covid-19 all the more dangerous.
Let’s take a look back to what life was like back in 1918, during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu, shall we?
There was death (of course) as well disruption in both social and economic settings. The workforce was reduced considerably, businesses lost profits and were going under. Families were left destitute because their main bread winner had either died or lost their job. Municipal and provincial governments closed down all non-essential services in order to prevent the spread of the disease. There were laws created around quarantine and residents were forced to wear mask whenever outside.
Sound eerily familiar?
Here’s a scary thought, the fist wave of the Spanish flu was pretty mild – consisting mainly of run of the mill cold symptoms but the SECOND WAVE consisted of people getting sick overnight, some dying within hours of getting sick, their lungs filling up with fluid and suffocating them. So, is this just the first wave of the corona virus? Or is it going to get worse? I don’t believe so, because we have advancements in health care (such as anti-biotics) and better tests. We can learn more with autopsies now that we could 100 years ago… but the chance still remains, it could potentially get worse.
After that scary note, let’s explore some of the key differences between the Spanish flu and Covid-19.
Number one- the type of virus. Over the years we have found out that the Spanish flu is actually an H1N1 virus- an actual influenza virus, whereas Covid-19 is an acute respiratory illness. While some symptoms overlap such as cough, fever, sore throat and fatigue, there are still a couple of pretty significant differences in symptoms. Covid-19 usually has shortness of breath and/or a pressure or pain felt in the chest as well as confusion and bluish colored lips or face. Spanish flu (H1N1) caused suffocation due to fluid in the lungs, whereas Covid-19 causes hardening of mucous in the lungs and causes suffocation that way.
Second, let’s look at WHO the virus kills. The Spanish flu victims were mainly young and healthy individuals and no so much the elderly. As far as Covid-19 goes, although the young are still affected, the opposite tends to be true in terms of deaths.
Third- let’s talk communication. Back in 1918, most countries that were affected by the virus suppressed and censored the media coverage surrounding the flu epidemic. Spain, who was neutral in the first world war however, did widely report on the disease and its devastating outcomes. This is actually how the virus earned the name “The Spanish Flu”. When news of it was picked up by western civilization, they labeled Spain and the country of origin, even though it had already been in at least the U.S. and France for several weeks longer than Spain. Today, the media and governments are being much more transparent about the Covid-19 outbreak and are being much quicker in getting any updates to the public, not only through social media but through emergency alerts as well.
For our fourth difference, we need to look at the state of health care itself. Penicillin, the first antibiotic wasn’t even discovered until 10 years after the Spanish flu outbreak in 1928. The ability to treat viruses were extremely limited compared the access to many drugs and antibiotics and all-around health care improvements we have today. Not to mention the fact that there was a significant shortage of trained medical workers and healthcare professionals in Canada and the U.S. because of the first world war. A lot of the doctors were overseas, leaving health care mainly in the hands of volunteers. Also, there was not a federal health department set up when the outbreak occurred in 1918, at least here in Canada. Provinces were left on their own to deal with the crisis and to implement their own medical guidelines. It was actually because of the Spanish flu that the Federal Department of Health was founded in Canada in 1919, and lead to the building of the health care system that we have now.
Lastly, we are fortunate nowadays that the governments are starting to take quick action in offering financial aid to those affected- both business and individual. That was not an option back in 1918, nor was it expected. Social distancing and isolation have been encouraged since virtually the beginning of Covid-19 and, in some cases (such as after international travel) mandatory. We have quicker global updates with the media and emergency alert systems, we are making huge strides in medicine and understanding the virus and how it attacks, vaccines against it will soon be developed.
That being said, it is important not to get cocky. Viruses can mutate. It is important to continue self isolation and practice social distancing! We have learned so much since 1918, but we are still learning and developing new methods in dealing with such viral diseases. This is going to be a long haul no matter what, and millions of people are going to be affected. We are still in early days, and social distancing will probably be encouraged for 12-18 months. The Spanish flu lasted until the mid 1920’s- that was over half a decade. This is by no means over, but we will get through this. Make sure that you are doing your part to stay safe. Stay indoors, wash your hands, and only go out for the essentials if absolutely needed!
The Spanish flu lasted for half of a decade it is up to us now to do all we can to curb the spread of Covid-19 so that we can all go back to normal life sooner rather than later.