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Coronavirus - History

Coronavirus spread brings harrowing memories of 1918 Spanish flu scourge

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, DC during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, DC during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Wikimedia Commons

With global efforts to contain the novel coronavirus largely failing, parallels are being drawn with the catastrophic Spanish flu of 1918 – the worst pandemic of our time – and experts are weighing in on whether the world has done enough to prepare for the next big threat.

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A century ago, celebrations marking the end of World War I were abruptly cut short when the H1N1 outbreak known as the Spanish flu rapidly hopscotched the globe to become one of the worst disasters in recorded history.

Infecting a third of the world’s population in just 18 months, the Spanish flu swiftly killed more people than Great War itself. Dark spots – cyanosis – appeared on the cheeks of many sufferers, with some drowning in their own fluids as their lungs filled with a type of bloody froth.

There were no vaccines, nor effective drugs to treat symptoms. Instead, people were instructed to wear masks, wash their hands and avoid crowds – much like today.

“The Spanish influenza pandemic is kind of a template for the worst possible catastrophe,” explains medical historian Dr Mark Honigsbaum, author of The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris.

He adds that many planning assumptions are based on scenarios that are a repeat of a 1918-style pandemic respiratory virus.

“Back then we knew a lot less about the threats that pandemic viruses pose to human populations … and of course in 1918 we weren't able to track the progress of the Spanish flu in real time the way we have with the coronavirus.”

While our health systems are far better developed these days, the channels of infection are more open, too, with a leading expert suggesting the new coronavirus, or Covid-19, could infect upwards of 60 percent (two-thirds) of the global population if uncontrolled.

Interview: medical historian and author Dr Mark Honigsbaum

“My concern with the coronavirus is that it's a numbers game: the more people that get infected in the population, the greater the chances are statistically that a small percentage will have very severe illnesses,” Honigsbaum says.

The novel coronavirus has caused more than 3,000 deaths since it first entered a human host by way of a produce market in China – largely sparing children and adversely affecting older people, mainly men, with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Experts are wondering if the infection might actually find a natural end – perhaps with the onset of warmer weather – much like the Spanish flu pandemic, which had died out by the summer of 1919.

People line up at the Louvre Museum as the staff closed the museum during a staff meeting about the coronavirus outbreak, in Paris, France, March 1, 2020.
People line up at the Louvre Museum as the staff closed the museum during a staff meeting about the coronavirus outbreak, in Paris, France, March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Some speculate the coronavirus is here to stay, and will become part of our seasonal illness repertoire to be warded off by way of a future vaccine.

Despite its infectious march across the globe, hitting some 58 countries so far and counting, the coronavirus has not yet be declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

“As one leading health expert told me, what difference would it make if the WHO called it a pandemic – given that we're already doing everything we would if it had that designation?” says Honigsbaum.

“It's not going to make a difference to the public health messaging, but what it could potentially do is increase panic, because when you remove three letters from the middle of ‘pandemic’, you get the word 'panic' – and pandemics have always been political as well as technical decisions.”

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