Is COVID as deadly as the 1918 flu pandemic?


Fact Box

  • As of August 17, there have been 21,900,054 coronavirus cases worldwide, with 774,394 reported worldwide deaths. The U.S. is responsible for 5,573,154 of the cases with 170,415 reported deaths.
  • As for the Spanish flu, an estimated 50 million people died worldwide, with about 675,000 deaths occurring in the U.S.
  • A recent JAMA study compared the two months since the first recorded death of COVID-19 in New York City – the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic – with the deadliest two months of the 1918 flu. Researchers have declared coronavirus to be worse. 
  • The elderly have been overwhelmingly affected by coronavirus. To contrast with the Spanish flu of 1918, the young working-age population were affected in higher numbers. 
  • 102-year-old Mildred Geraldine Schappals survived both the Spanish flu and coronavirus saying the “[virus] wasn’t bad.”

Jennifer (Yes)

We must place this question in perspective. 1918 is not at all like 2020, with tremendous advances in hygiene and public health. But even with a century between them, the Spanish Flu and COVID-19 are similarly deadly, as a new study has revealed. It's noteworthy to remember how World War I, and the troop movements associated with it, contributed enormously to the rapid spread of the Spanish Flu. Further, the Flu of the day came in three distinct waves, without the benefit of the knowledge we now have of how viruses spread. With the global nature of our current society, the increasing level of knowledge we have on the novel COVID-19 virus is ever at our fingertips—knowledge harvested from all over the world.

COVID-19 is nowhere near finished with us. It's clear that even with our technological advances in public health and immunology, we are in uncharted territory, which might easily cost us more lives than the Spanish Flu when all is said and done. Scientists are warning that COVID-19's fatality rate is twice as high as originally projected with the infection-fatality rate for people over 75 at 13.83%. It's obvious this virus is not to be trifled with, and yet, some continue to do exactly that. Comparing COVID-19 with the Spanish Flu may be instructive in some respects. But we need to resist the temptation to inappropriately conflate a continually mutating virus—which is recently recorded to be re-infecting people who've already been ill with it—with a 100-year-old flu pandemic.

Bill (No)

COVID is nowhere near as deadly as the 1918 flu pandemic for the following reasons: 100 times as many people died as a result of the Flu as compared to COVID (so far). There were no antibiotics available in 1918 to fight infections. While COVID deaths are primarily afflicting older citizens who have multiple chronic medical conditions (those over 65 who are currently being treated for serious medical conditions that have compromised their health), the 1918 flu was not nearly as selective. Deaths occurred across the age and health spectrum, including in healthy younger people. In fact, estimated global deaths from the 1918 Flu range between 17.4 and 50 million (between 1% and 2.7% of the world's population at the time). An equivalent number today would translate to between 78 and 210 million deaths. The current global death toll from COVID stands at 748 thousand (less than 1% of the lower range number noted above).  

Medical treatments and pharmaceutical discoveries have made significant strides in the last century. Antibiotics that are routinely prescribed to treat bacterial infections today were not available in 1918 to treat the secondary effects of the Flu, which caused many to perish. COVID is less deadly than the 1918 Flu because it preys on the unhealthy and elderly - its victims are typically battling other chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes or cancer, and COVID presents an additional risk factor whereas the 1918 Flu was deadly to its sufferers all by itself. The verdict is clear on this one: the 1918 Flu was far more deadly than COVID to date.

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