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The 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic: how does the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic compare?

Children ready for school, Florida, 1918Children ready for school, Florida, 1918The rapid spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, is grabbing the headlines worldwide. Another pandemic gripped the world just over 100 years ago in 1918, "Spanish influenza". How does the two events compare? Both diseases are caused by viruses, although they belong to different families. Many of the people who have died from Covid-19 have succumbed to pneumonia, which takes hold as the immune system is weakened from fighting the virus. This is also something that Covid-19 shares with Spanish flu. However, experts have described the present outbreak as merely “a pale reflection of 1918". In the aftermath of World War I, Spanish flu swept the world, killing between 50 and 100 million people. Many of them were young adults. With the new coronavirus, which has, as of 13th March, claimed fewer than 5000 lives, the elderly and people with pre-existing illnesses are considered to be most at risk.

Red Cross volunteers carry a victim, 1919Red Cross volunteers carry a victim, 1919

The pandemic

The influenza (flu) outbreak of 1918 was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. Spanish flu, as it was called, is believed to have infected 500 million people around the world, or about 27% of the total world population at the time. Between 50 million and 100 million people perished—more than double the number of people who were killed during World War I.

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