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 19th-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.