I was researching the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 for Orphan Rock [Transit Lounge, forthcoming March 2022], when reports of a new pandemic – COVID-19 – hit the news headlines.

SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19

It was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, and the World Health Organization declared the outbreak with an ‘Emergencies Preparedness, Response’  on 5 January 2020, calling it  ‘Pneumonia of unknown cause – China’, then another on 12 January 2020, naming it ‘Novel Coronavirus – China’. It declared it a pandemic on 11 March 2020. By April 2020, more than half of the world’s population had been ordered into lockdown by their governments.

And as I read these headlines over the following months, I became interested in the similarities and differences in these two pandemics, and in particular how people responded to these crises, which prompted me to then research other pandemics throughout history and how people reacted to these as well. The French have a saying: ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, [‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’]. So true! Here is what I discovered:

Differences between Spanish Flu and COVID-19

The incubation period is different. Spanish Flu had an incubation period of only a day or two, while the incubation period of COVID-19 can be up to a fortnight. Because of this, COVID-19 can spread by what is known a ‘stealth transmission’ [ie: during this incubation period, people have very mild or no symptoms, and so do not realise they are spreading the disease].

H1N1 influenza A virus which caused the Spanish Flu

The two viruses mutate differently. The virus of the first wave of the Spanish Flu was far less lethal than that of the second wave. As far as can be determined, this mutation immediately penetrated deep in the victims’ lungs, triggering what is known as a ‘cytokine storm, which is when the immune system goes into overdrive and releases a surge of antibodies into the lungs, which results in inflammation and fluid build-up, ‘drowning’ the victim, and making the victim susceptible to bacterial pneumonia. And while the COVID-19 has mutated, it has not, at the time of writing this [September 2020], developed into one that immediately penetrated deep into the lungs, thus giving the body’s immune system a chance to fight it.

They target different age groups. Spanish Flu targeted those from their 20s to 40s as well as children. The elderly weren’t as susceptible, and it’s believed to be because they may have received partial immunity from previous infections. COVID-19, on the other hand, targets the elderly more than younger people, and children are either unaffected or have much less severe illness.

Many who died after getting the Spanish Flu died of secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia [in an era when antibiotics were unavailable], whereas with COVID-19, people die from COVID-19.

Similarities between the Spanish Flu and COVID-19

Both diseases are the result of ‘zoonotic spillover, which means the transmission of a virus from an animal reservoir [ie: an animal which carries the disease but is not affected by it] to humans [who do become ill from it].

Both are highly infectious diseases of the respiratory system.

These diseases are caused by viruses, so do not respond to antibiotics.

Both are spread though droplet infection [ie: through the air by coughing or sneezing], or by touching infected surfaces.

They share similar symptoms: fever, coughing, sneezing, aches and pains, difficulty breathing, and can lead to pneumonia.

Both viruses spread in waves.

The first wave of Spanish flu begun in March 1918, and was relatively mild. The second, more deadly wave started in the second half of August 1918, and was over by December of that year. But by January 1919, a third wave hit Australia and quickly spread through Europe and the United States, ending in June 1919. In the Northern hemisphere spring of 1920, a fourth wave occurred in the US, Switzerland, Peru, Scandinavia, Japan, Spain, Denmark, Finland and Germany.

COVID-19 is also spreading in waves. Though first reported to the WHO on 31 December 2019, it was not declared a pandemic until March 2020, and soon governments placed their countries into lockdown in an attempt to control the disease. But as restrictions eased, many countries experienced a second wave. On 20 July 2020, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald identified Australia, India, Japan, Israel, Italy and the United States all experiencing a second wave, then a third wave hit Hong Kong and Singapore in July 2020. On the 15th July 2021, the World Health Organization warned that the Covid-19 pandemic has entered the early stages of a world-wide third wave as the fast-spreading Delta variant of the virus caused cases to spike, wiping out progress made through vaccines.

 Both viruses can kill

Spread of COVID-19 – 19 July 2021 Image: Johns Hopkins University

Worldwide, the Spanish Flu is estimated to have killed between 50 to 100 million people [depending on the record], with around a third of Australia’s population being infected. In Australia, losses were estimated at between 12,000 to 15,000 deaths. Note, however, that because many died from secondary infections, researchers cannot attribute a definite number to the deaths caused by the Spanish Flu. A constantly updated world map by the Johns Hopkins University showed, at the time of updating this [19 July 2021], that there were 190,375,116 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with 4,088,328 deaths. In Australia, the figures were 32,015 confirmed cases, with 914 deaths.

So did people behave differently in 1919, when the Spanish Flu reached their shores, compared to how people are behaving during COVID-19? Click here to find out #pandemic  #covid-19  #SpanishFlu