The Spanish Flu
The 1918 Spanish flu has become a regular topic of conversation in the wake of the corona virus epidemic we have been going through the past year. The more I have read about the epidemic that lasted roughly eighteen months in 1918-19, the more I realize just how fortunate we have been to have avoided a pandemic such as the one the world went through just over a hundred years ago. I do not mean to disregard the horrible loss of life that people have suffered thus far, or the disastrous economic consequences. But I do want to put it in perspective.
To give you an idea of the scale, take in these figures on their own. In the United States in 1918 the population was just over one hundred million. Today it is just over three hundred and thirty million. The deaths from Spanish flu in the United States by 1920 reached 675,000 (more than the number of deaths of Americans in both world wars). Compare that to the roughly (as of April 2021) 530,000 deaths to COVID-19. In order to equalize the figures, deaths in the United States would need to be more than 1.5 million. It could theoretically still happen, but with the rate of vaccines and herd immunity climbing, it is unlikely. In 1918-20, however, American death rates compared to the rest of the world were comparatively low, unlike today when U.S. deaths rank highest in sheer numbers. In Europe, Spanish flu took as many as two and half million lives. The figure in Russia was approximately the same, but because of the civil war raging there at the time, the numbers are inexact. In British-ruled India, some say as many as ten million may have died.
Figures for worldwide deaths from the Spanish flu vary, but the most conservative estimates are still around twenty million deaths. The highest figures suggest as many as one hundred million may have died —many of them young people (young men were disproportionately represented because they were gathered together in large number during World War I).
COVID-19 has been responsible for around three million deaths thus far around the world. As the pandemic takes hold in Brazil, India, and other less-developed nations, this figure could rise. However, if you compare the population of the world today (7.6 billion) to that of the world in 1920 (1.8 billion), even the most cursory of analyses show that we are all lucky (no disrespect to families who have lost someone) that it has not been worse. Hopefully the worst has passed. Hope springs eternal.