Just over 100 years ago, the world was in the midst of a pandemic, just like it is now.
It was the deadliest in history, infecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide and claiming between 20 and 50 million lives. In Canada, it killed about 55,000, mostly young adults.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 is seen as a benchmark in how the world sees, responds to and quantifies pandemics.
As the wrath of COVID-19 continues to surge worldwide, sinking its teeth further into Europe and North America, scientists and historians are drawing parallels to the 20th-century influenza but are quick to point out that there are still stark differences.
“It’s similar in some ways that are frightening and some ways that are comforting,” said Skip Desjardins, a researcher, former journalist and author of September 1918: War, Plague, And The World Series.
“Pandemics are, in some respects, somewhat more dangerous now, despite all of our advances in medical science, primarily because we’re so global. We’re truly a global community. We move around more rapidly and easier than we did 100 years ago, and that’s what helps viruses spread that much faster.”
The Spanish Flu emerged in early March 1918, during the First World War, though it remains unclear where it first began.
While the first wave was generally mild, with typical cold-like symptoms, the second wave, in August, was much nastier. Some people died within hours of becoming ill, with their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluids, causing them to suffocate.
Its third wave stretched through the winter and wasn’t considered eradicated until the end of 1920.
The worldwide spread of the Spanish Flu, like coronavirus, was exacerbated by travel. Instead of airplanes, it was ships.
The movement of military troops during the last few months of the First World War allowed the virus to spread to military bases in several midwestern and southeastern U.S. states, and it’s likely American soldiers carried the virus to France, where it spread to other parts of Europe.
“It inevitably ended up in the civilian population,” Desjardins said.
Now, with air travel, a virus can spread from one continent to another in a matter of hours.
The new coronavirus started in Wuhan, China and quickly spread to other Chinese provinces before jumping borders and seas. Since it began in late December, it’s touched more than 100 countries and transformed Europe into its newest epicentre.
The widespread transmission is in part due to a lack of immunity in the population, experts believe.
There was no immunity to the Spanish Flu, either, Desjardins said.
“It was a new strain of a disease that wasn’t present in our society before, so therefore humans didn’t have immunity to it,” he said.
“In that respect, treating this virus is like treating the Spanish Flu, because it’s brand new and there’s a sudden scramble to try and figure out how to fight it.”
But the Spanish Flu is unique and different from COVID-19 in a number of ways, according to Heather MacDougall, an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, especially with how it’s behaving and being managed in Canada.
“That meant there was a huge shortage of trained medical personnel and therefore a significant dependence on volunteers.”
The most unusual difference between the two is who was most at risk. The Spanish Flu predominately killed young, healthy people rather than the elderly.
The new coronavirus has so far hit older people hardest, but young people are still vulnerable.
“In Canada, we were in our final 100 days of the war. We were suffering huge battlefield casualties, and to have this break out in our troops still in Canada and our civilian population was very devastating,” she said.
Communication — particularly truthful communication — has also been a huge difference, MacDougall said.
With the world at war in 1918, many of the affected countries censored and suppressed their media, effectively stifling news of the flu. It’s part of the reason why the influenza was mislabelled.
Spain, which was neutral in the war, reported it widely. When it was picked up by news organization of the Western Front, Spain was seen as the origin when, in fact, the flu had been proliferating in France and the United States for several weeks longer.
“You can see a certain level of hesitation when you look at Canadian newspapers from that time. It’s all war news on page one and only when the flu became terrifically bad in Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina and so on, does it appear on page one. Most of the time it’s further inside,” she said.
“We’re being much, much better in terms of transparency this time around.”
It shows how far Canada has come in terms of how it handles disease, MacDougall said.
The Spanish Flu was one factor that led to the creation of the federal Department of Health in 1919, which later led to the implementation of the federal health-care system we know now.
Today’s public health system and institutionalized structure is a key difference between now and then, according to MacDougall.
“If I was a medical health officer at the time and I didn’t really have a lot that I could do other than warn people and ask them to think about how they can help under the circumstances,” she said. “Whereas today we’re in much better shape.”
Desjardins echoed that sentiment. He said New York, unlike other American cities, did not have as hard of a time because city officials and newspapers alike told people what they needed to know to prevent catching it.
“You can see how even 100 years ago, how knowledge, information and taking prudent steps can mitigate the problem,” he said.
MacDougall said she was particularly struck by the federal and provincial government’s plans to help those worried about losing their homes or being unable to pay their bills because of illness, self-isolation, quarantine or otherwise.
“That would’ve been great news back in 1918 for a lot of people,” he said.
“But it was a very different society. I don’t think there was any real expectation of that. That’s a fairly significant difference.”
Despite the contrasts, both Desjardins and MacDougall agree that the impact of COVID-19 will be tremendous. Just how tremendous, the world won’t know for some time.
“It’s going to infect millions of people in North America. There’s no way around it. What we’re trying to do now with social distancing — which was used in some ways in 1918 — is stretch out the period of time in which we get infected and hope that most of us have very mild symptoms,” he said.
“Because it’s better to have a shortage of toilet paper or bread than it is to have a shortage of intensive care units and doctors.”