Comparing COVID-19 to the 1918 Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu still remains the deadliest pandemic the world has ever witnessed. But recent happenings as regards COVID-19 have led to comparisons and fears about the current pandemic getting to that level.

Patients Spanish Flu

Patients Spanish Flu

In what ways are the two outbreaks similar and what sets them apart? Is there really any justification for fears about COVID-19 becoming as worse as the Spanish Flu? Continue reading to learn more.

About the Spanish Flu

What people call the Spanish flu was not an outbreak that mainly affected Spain or so-called because it started from there. According to reports, it got that name because it received greater press coverage in Spain.

The pandemic started toward the end of the First World War. Spain was not a party to the war and there was no media censorship in place at the time. Therefore, pressmen were free to report.

When it began in 1918’s spring, the Spanish flu was more like regular flu seen from season to season. It, however, started to become unusually deadly from the end of that year’s summer.

Unlike COVID-19 that is known to have started from China, it is still not known where the Spanish flu began. But a popular theory on this is that it started in congested army camps during the war – particularly in unhygienic French border trenches.

Soldiers returned to their homes after World War I with the flu virus. The infection then spread from Europe to other parts of the world. It affected around a quarter of the world’s population at the time, according to estimates.

The Spanish flu possibly claimed more lives than the war. The total deaths were up to 50 million, according to most sources. Some others claim the number was possibly up to 100 million!

In one of the scariest examples, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it killed 72 out of roughly 80 adults in a small Alaskan village.

The Spanish flu killed some 675,000 people in the U.S.

What Do COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu Have in Common?

The Spanish flu was a major health crisis at the time it occurred – it was unlike what people had seen before. In the same way, the current coronavirus is nothing like what most people have seen in terms of its global spread and incidence.

One key thing that the 2019 novel coronavirus and the Spanish flu virus have in common is how they come about. Both of them are believed to have come from animals.

Read Also: 31 Existing Antiviral Drugs Are Now Being Considered for the Wuhan Coronavirus

According to researchers, the deadly flu originated from a bird, although the specific one is not known. The particular animal responsible for the coronavirus is unknown yet.

The viruses become a threat to humans after undergoing mutations, which made them very hazardous.

The rate of infection is another factor that the two viruses seem to have in common. They both spread quickly across the world. While the flu affected up to a third of the global population while it lasted, COVID-19 is now in all continents, bar Antarctica.

Read Also: Are Masks Effective in the Fight Against the Coronavirus Epidemic?

Also, while SARS-CoV-2 hasn’t killed as many people as the Spanish flu, they currently seem to exhibit somewhat similar death rates. MedicineNet Health News, quoting Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger, reports that more than 2.5 percent of people with the flu died. A recent study in the journal JAMA puts the case-fatality rate at COVID-19 at 2.3 percent.

Pneumonia is a major cause of death for both of these medical disorders. The infection leads to respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, shallow breathing, and a feeling of suffocation.

In What Ways Do They Differ?

Although they both produce respiratory symptoms, the COVID-19 and the Spanish flu viruses are completely different. They belong to distinct families of viruses. The Spanish flu was caused by an influenza virus while COVID-19 results from infection with a coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

Another key difference between the two outbreaks is the population most at risk. The Spanish flu was unusual in that, unlike regular flu, the majority of its victims were younger people – a group that typically has stronger immunity against the flu. In contrast, people with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions, are more likely to die from COVID-19.

Related: Coronavirus Pandemic: Why Knowing Your HIV Status Could save Your Life

These pandemics differ in the rate at which they kill those infected. The Spanish flu virus killed faster, compared to the current coronavirus. MedicineNet, citing National Geographic, reported that many infected people who woke up ill with the flu, died while going to their workplaces.

The existing body of knowledge is another thing that sets these major epidemics apart from one another. At the time of the Spanish flu, little was known about viruses. The pathogens were too small to be seen and so could not be isolated. It was some years later that the electron microscope made its appearance. By contrast, it took scientists only days to decrypt the DNA of the COVID-19 virus, thanks to advanced knowledge and technology.

Current Coronavirus Situation

The COVID-19 outbreak started out mostly as a problem in China. Things have since changed. It is now a bigger problem for some other countries.

As of writing, the novel coronavirus is now in 196 countries, areas, and territories, according to the World Health Organization. There are about 375,500 cases globally. More than 16,360 people have died as a result of the infection. These data were last updated at 22:53 hours (UTC + 1) on March 24.

Worldometer puts the number of total cases at more than 428,200, as of writing. Total deaths topped 19,100. The website says total infections and deaths in the U.S. are about 55,000 and 800 respectively. Italy has the highest number of deaths so far from the pandemic at more than 6,800.

New cases are reducing in China while there are already fears that th might become the new epicenter for the virus at some point.


The Spanish flu arguably contributed immensely to modern public health systems, particularly in Western countries. It also informed some of the measures that are currently being used to try and curb the COVID-19 outbreak. For instance, the deadly pandemic informed decisions such as restricting people’s movements and quarantining people who are infected.

Experts say almost all cases of influenza A in humans over the years have a link to the virus responsible for the Spanish flu. Its descendants are still in pigs, according to Dr. Taubenberger.

The COVID-19 virus is a new one – hence, the name “novel coronavirus.” Many things are still unknown about it, which is why scientists have no clear idea of when a vaccine or cure will become available.

Coronavirus Q & A: Ask Dr Chebani Any Question About COVID-19


How does the coronavirus compare to the Spanish flu? (

What 1918 Spanish Flu Death Toll Tells Us About COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic – MedicineNet Health News (

Coronavirus: What can we learn from the Spanish flu? – BBC Future


Coronavirus disease 2019 – World Health Organization (

Coronavirus Update (Live): 428,217 Cases and 19,101 Deaths from COVID-19 Virus Outbreak – Worldometer (




Want to Stay Informed?

Join the Gilmore Health News Newsletter!

Want to live your best life?

Get the Gilmore Health Weekly newsletter for health tips, wellness updates and more.

By clicking "Subscribe," I agree to the Gilmore Health and . I also agree to receive emails from Gilmore Health and I understand that I may opt out of Gilmore Health subscriptions at any time.