Coronavirus and Spanish flu: comparison of pandemics

Coronavirus and Spanish flu: comparison of pandemics

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Corona Pandemic: Lessons from the Spanish Flu?

In times of the corona pandemic, the "Spanish flu" is often remembered, which is said to have claimed up to 50 million lives worldwide just over 100 years ago. Two historians from the University of Basel clarify in a recent communication about some differences and similarities between the two pandemics.

At the end of the First World War, the Spanish flu raged in all parts of the world and, according to estimates, claimed up to 50 million human lives. The Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus and the disease caused by the new pathogen COVID-19 are currently spreading all over the world. Is there anything we can learn from the Spanish flu in the Corona crisis?

Healthy in the morning - dead in the afternoon

It was the greatest pandemic of modern times: the deadly “flu of the century” broke out in July 1918 in the final phase of the First World War and struck the world for a year.

As explained in the communication from the University of Basel, a bacterium was initially assumed to be the cause, which is transmitted via touch - the (smaller) viruses, which were not yet visible under the microscopes of the time, were only identified later.

The H1N1 influenza virus of type A is considered to be the direct pathogen, but its origin and distribution are still unclear.

According to Séveric Yersin, historian and doctoral student at the University of Basel, the rapid course of the disease made a special impression at the time.

"People were able to go to work in good health in the morning and were dead in the early afternoon," said the scientist.

It mainly affects people between 20 and 40 years of age

Another shocking effect was that the skin of the victims turned blue due to a reaction from the immune system. But not all infected people were equally affected by the devastating flu.

According to Yersin, it has not yet been clarified why the victims mostly affected people between the ages of 20 and 40. Apparently, their weakened defenses played a role.

In any case, there is a large degree of social inequality that accompanied the fatal disease: the number of victims was not the same in all Swiss cantons, and quarters with a large proportion of tenants had a higher mortality rate.

Kill the pathogen with as much alcohol as possible

The first cases of Spanish flu occurred in the army in the summer of 1918 before the numbers rose rapidly worldwide. "The government and health authorities were poorly prepared for the pandemic," explains Prof. Dr. Patrick Kury, co-director of Stadt.Geschichte.Basel.

The deadly danger was underestimated, you just knew too little. As early as July 1918, the Federal Council instructed the cantons to contain the disease, but this was very unevenly followed.

There were also very different assessments in the medical profession. In general, the strangest advice for healing methods circulated, including that of killing the pathogen with as much alcohol as possible.

Even back then it was important to stay at home!

The authorities' recommendations: meetings should be avoided and patients should be kept in bed. However, large sections of the population considered such measures in favor of peace and order a harassment. Churches, schools, theaters and cinemas remained closed, trains and trams were restricted.

"If you want to protect yourself from infection, stay at home," advised the Basel medical department. Emergency hospitals were established, and the whole country was called upon to donate duvets and mattresses, to provide cars to doctors, and to provide voluntary help.

"Nursing staff in clinics and emergency hospitals and during home visits were under enormous pressure," said Kury. Because most flu patients were looked after at home by - mostly female - family members and nurses, which put them in deadly danger.

The greatest number of victims of the flu at that time also showed the civilian population.

Even today, not everyone can cure flu in bed

The dead soldiers, who were later celebrated as "heroes of the fatherland", stuck in the collective memory - according to the judge, just under eight percent of the fatalities came from the army.

Most of the medical expenses and wage losses had to be borne by those affected themselves and their relatives.

"Public health was not as important today," explains Yersin. For example, the "Spanish flu" has significantly improved health insurance in Switzerland for many; these have now received more support from the federal government.

But then as now, the historian suspects, not everyone could afford to cure the flu for a long time in bed and seek help.

Conditions at the time not comparable to the current situation

The situation at that time during the pandemic was very different and, for Kury, not comparable with the current situation.

"Today medical knowledge, cross-border cooperation and coordinating measures are at a completely different level."

But the flu of 1918/19 shows how important it is to face a pandemic with the necessary consequences.

"It should come as no surprise to us if the corona crisis has consequences in politics, business and society that are not yet known today," said Yersin. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • University of Basel: What connects Corona with the "Spanish flu" - and what doesn't, (accessed: May 10, 2020), University of Basel

Video: Could the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Happen Again? (October 2022).