Drawing Parallels: Comparing COVID-19 and The Spanish Flu

How similar are these pandemics and what has changed in these 100 years?

Time and again, viruses have threatened the very existence of human life. The earliest record of a viral infection dates back to 1200 BC in Central Asia, South Asia, Babylon, and Mesopotamia. But, the biggest one in recent times was the Spanish Flu that affected one-third of the world's population and ended up killing 50 million people (some estimates even take the number to 100 million).

This was exactly 100 years before COVID-19.

How similar are these pandemics? Over this weekend, I poured through several articles and research studies to find out what are the similarities and differences between both the pandemics. And, to my surprise, I found a lot of interesting facts.


The Spanish Flu did not originally originate in Spain. Even though it originated from Europe and later spread all over the world, it got its name as it was first reported by media outlets in Spain before other countries. And, even though the timeline of the Spanish Flu is often considered to be between February 1918 to April 1920, the earliest cases go back to 1917. An interesting cover story that investigated the root of the infection traces the origin of the disease to France. It is said that the symptoms of the infection were first seen by Army doctors who were treating British soldiers in France.

Similarly, SARS Cov-2 - the virus responsible for COVID-19 seemed to be believed to have started in Wuhan sometime during December 2019. But, according to a research study, the earliest traces of the virus was found in Barcelona, Spain in March 2019.

In both cases, the earliest cases of the disease were identified eight to nine months before the massive outbreak, and they both originated in Europe.

Target Host

Viral infections are known to affect everyone, but people who are young would normally bounce back with minimal difficulties due to their active immune system. The people who suffer the most are the elderly and the young ones. This was the case with COVID-19 as well. The young (people in their 20s to 40s) recover easily compared to senior citizens.

But, on the contrary, the Spanish Flu took the lives of young people who were at their 20s and 30s. When I looked for the answer, I found it in the same cover story that investigated the origin of the Spanish Flu.

According to the article,

"When it comes to flu, there is increasing evidence that the body’s immune system responds best to the virus it first encounters in childhood. The phenomenon is called imprinting. The less related a later virus is from the one that caused that first infection, the less effective the immune response will be in fighting it.

Three decades before the 1918 Spanish flu, the world was hit by a pandemic caused by an H3N8 virus. That virus was likely to have shared no genes with the 1918 virus; furthermore, the viruses in those two pandemics belong to different sides of the influenza virus family tree, meaning that the antibodies generated by the H3 exposures wouldn’t even offer modest “cross-protection” against the virus in the Spanish flu pandemic."

This is the reason older people have developed immunity as they might have thrived through the various infections when they were younger compared to the younger population who succumbed to the infection.

Cases, Recovery, and Death

As of today, COVID-19 has infected 16.2 million people worldwide, of which 9.2 million people have recovered, 5.6 million people being treated and 6,45,000 people dead.

On the other hand, the Spanish Flu or "The Forgotten Pandemic" has infected over 500 million people and has killed roughly 50 million people. People who were infected with the virus either developed immunity against the virus or ended up being dead.

When comes to Mortality, the Spanish Flu is estimated to have taken the lives of 3% of the world's population, a number several times more when compared to COVID-19 which took away 0.08% of the world's population.

Battle and the Victory

Humanity's battle against diseases hasn't changed much. Since 1890, we've had 113 epidemics across the world, of which 13 have been pandemics. I was as surprised as you are when I found out. 113 disease outbreaks in 130 years. That amounts to 0.8 epidemics per year (almost one outbreak per year) and one pandemic every 8.6 years.

If we look back, we can see that we've developed so much in these 100 years.

But, our battle against viruses has remained the same. Be it wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, or shutting down businesses across the world, nothing has changed between the Spanish Flu and COVID-19. However, the one thing that changed now is that a huge chunk of the working population who work in the computer and IT industry was still able to keep the world running in the middle of all this chaos.

But, the one thing I am hopeful for and the one thing I've learned when I looked at all the previous pandemics is that they won't last long. There will either be a vaccine or we'll develop immunity against the virus. That's how nature works. Even the massive Spanish Flu ended in two years. We're seven months into this pandemic and we've done a great job until now. With everything going on around us, we'll come out of this in no time. Even though we are no competition for viruses, we have hope that will guide us to a better future.