21 December, 2020
Dr. Zaid Tariq, Murdoch University (Australia)
Since its outbreak, Covid-19 has frequently been compared to the 1918 Spanish flu. Although the two pandemics occurred in two different eras, and they are quite different in medical terms, certain similarities draw immediate attention. It has been more than 100 years since the world was hit by the deadliest pandemic, and the times have changed greatly, medical experts, economists, and politicians can learn some lessons to deal with the ongoing pandemic. This paper compares the general, economic, and social aspects of the two pandemics and deduces some important observations on how the impact of Covid-19 can be minimized.
The fact that both N1H1 and coronavirus attack the respiratory system and have similar propagation pattern, makes these comparisons quite valid and useful. Medical experts are closely analyzing various medical aspects of the 1918 pandemic to come up with better preventions and treatment methods.
Nature of Viruses
This is where all the comparisons began – the nature of both viruses. Both N1H1 and coronavirus are novel, which means they have never been identified before and humans don't have immunity against them. However, on a cellular level, both viruses are different from each other.
Another similarity is, they are highly contagious and require more or less the same preventative measures to stop the spread. Just like the current pandemic, during the Spanish flu people were encouraged to cover their faces. Lockdowns, isolation, and quarantine were common terminologies then, just as they are now.
Origin of Pandemics
The biggest difference between the two pandemics is their origins. The 1918 Spanish flu broke out amidst World War I and was first identified in the U.S. military personnel. The health and living conditions attributed greatly to the spread of this flu. The H1N1 influenza virus, that causes this disease is found in birds and is highly contagious. Unlike popular belief, the outbreak did not start in Spain. The first known victims belonged to New York, but the disease was termed as Spanish flu because being the neutral state, Spain could highlight the gravity of the situation. However, the active participants of war kept forging the facts and suppressing the number of victims and deaths.
Coming to Covid-19, the first patient was reported in 2019 from China. Research suggests that the virus was contained in the meat market of Wuhan, a Chinese province. It is definite that the virus had been passed on to humans from an animal host, but identifying the source is nearly impossible.
Likely Victims and Mortality Rate
The 1918 pandemic hit the world in three waves, and at one point it had affected 500 million people across the globe. The mortality rate was sky high, killing around 50 million people. The countries involved in WWI tried to suppress the situation by hiding the actual numbers of cases and deaths. So, it is hard to quote the exact mortality rate, but it was roughly around 2%. The death toll during the current pandemic has reached 1.9 million, which is alarming, but as compared to Spanish flu the mortality rate
One major difference between the two is the profile of likely victims. The 1918 Spanish flu was most common among healthy adults, aged between 25 to 45. While the most vulnerable group to get affected by Covid-19 is the elderly or adults with underlying medical problems.
Even a century later, the non-pharmaceutical interventions remain the same. Just like today, back in 1918 the immediate responses to limit the spread of the disease were quarantine, isolation, use of disinfectants, and masks.
However, back then there were no antibiotics to treat other complications caused by the flu, hence the higher mortality rate. Thanks to the medical evolution, successful vaccination trials have already begun for Covid-19, which means that the duration for the current pandemic can be shorter than the Spanish flu.
Impact on the Global Economy
Implementing preventative measures during a pandemic directly affects the socio-economic conditions. Both pandemics triggered the global economic crisis, but the consequences are different. Let's see in what ways the economic disruption caused by the two pandemics is different.
In terms of economy, the consequences of the previous pandemic were more severe. Although the extent of lockdowns was way flexible than today, the fact that the 1918 pandemic happened during WWI, when the world was already facing an economic crisis, made matters even worse.
Negative Labor Supply
Just like today, during the Spanish flu the GDP went down and the unemployment rate increased. However, one major difference between the two pandemics is negative labor shock. The 1918 pandemic affected the group that presented the major labor force. So, the recovery from economical disruptions took way more time than today.
Another factor that it seems unlikely that Covid-19 will have a similar economic impact as the Spanish flu is, there are alternate means of business today. A century ago, there was no concept of e-commerce or remote working.
How Pandemics Shape Societies?
It might seem like society is embracing the new norms, but pandemics affect the social dynamics and psychology of individuals on a deeper level than usually perceived. Although medical experts insist that social distancing and avoiding crowds is the only effective way to slow down the propagation of a contagious disease, it does have a negative psychological impact. Amidst both pandemics, a rise in mental illness has been observed. However, thanks to technology today there are alternatives to socialize.
The two pandemics are indeed different in terms of medical background, but there are certain lessons we can learn from the past to save the future. The reason why the 1918 pandemic resulted in so many casualties was inconsistent policymaking. If preventative measures are taken promptly, the impact of the pandemic can be minimized to a significant extent.