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The Spanish Flu: 100 Years Later

The Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918, 1919 and 1920 produced illness rates and death counts unheard of in the 21st century


About the Spanish Flu

Almost exactly 100 years ago, the Spanish Influenza swept the world and created death tolls well into millions. Today’s numbers seem pale to what happened just as WWI was drawing to a close.

By modern estimates somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died, when the worldwide population was  approximately 1.2 billion. This translates out to a death rate in the range of 4.2% to 8.3 %.

Though the worst is yet to come, it is hard to imagine anything like that happening today.

During the Spanish Flu Pandemic, on the worst of days, bodies piled up like cordwood.



A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Today, COVID-19, which is caused by a coronavirus, is causing a lot of pain of misery all around the planet. It is hard to imagine how we would react today, if our current outbreak was even half as severe as the one that began in 1918 and lasted for two years.



The Seattle Police are pictured here in uniform and all wearing a mask.



Masks Were Worn by Almost Everybody

Perhaps, not at first, but by time the second and third waves hit, it did not take a big PR campaign to get everyone to wear a face mask.



Then as now, health care workers took their jobs very seriously.



A Different Era

The Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 and 1919 came at the end of WWI, so it is more than likely that all the energy and effort that went forth into the war effort was easily channeled into fighting the new and deadly pandemic. Even so, dealing with tens of millions of dead any many more, who were sick from the virus, is hard to fathom today.



Death tolls from country to country varied, but so did the populations.


Comparing the Two Outbreaks

Though the numbers on this chart may seem to vary by a lot, it is important to note that the populations of each nation listed, also varied. For example, today Canada is 10 times smaller than the US and Australia is almost 20 times smaller in its population. So when you take into account the different population size of each nation, the death rates are really much closer.

Compare that to today, where we have a great variation in death rates among different countries. Take the case of Taiwan, South Korea, Cuba, Costa Rica and Rwanda, which all have extremely low death rates. In contrast, other bigger nations such as the U.S., Brazil and India, have staggering body counts and even when broken down to actual death rates, these places are suffering immensely, while other places seem to have completely avoided the calamity. It is hard to pinpoint the reason for these discrepancies at this point in time, but I’m sure that these two outbreaks will be studied extensively in the near future.

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