#TBT: The deadliest pandemic in modern history

Cities across the U.S. closed schools, churches, and theaters to stop this deadly virus from spreading... And no, it wasn't coronavirus.

It was the deadliest pandemic in modern history

A virus that spread around the globe infecting tens of millions of people and overwhelming medical services on multiple continents. Patients developed fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. Cities across the U.S. closed their schools, churches, theaters, and bars to slow the spread, and masks were recommended. It was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 million people worldwide.

The last major pandemic

“The Spanish flu was the last major pandemic that we saw aggressively test health systems around the globe.”, Alexandre White, a professor of medical history, tells Brut. Despite its name, the first identified cases were in the U.S. in the last year of WWI before soldiers spread it to Europe. Though the pandemic didn't originate in Spain, and Spain wasn't as badly hit as other countries, it was the first country to widely report on it, thus giving the disease its nickname.

The Spanish flu and coronavirus?

The disease created a global scare similar to coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, today. But the two pandemics are very different. Modern tools for understanding and treating viruses didn't exist 100 years ago. “We have ventilators and the capacity to intubate patients in such a way that we can significantly manage the complications of a disease like this. And we also have the capacity to more effectively sanitize and hygienically treat people in hospital spaces. I think we also have the capacity to respond more effectively as individuals because of our generally higher levels and capacity for hygiene to wash our hands. We have access to clean water. All of these things that make it easier to sanitize the spaces that we live in and protect ourselves from COVID-19.”, he continued.

The massive displacements of WWI also rapidly spread the disease

White states, “After World War One, health systems were already shattered. People were weakened and compromised in general as a result of years of one of the most disastrous wars humanity has ever known. And as a result of people traveling back and forth from war zones to their home or refugees traveling back to their homelands, you had a lot of movement of people who are able to carry the disease more effectively than you might have outside of the context of war. And unlike coronavirus, which hits older people the hardest, the Spanish flu was deadly among the young and healthy. The Spanish flu pandemic ended quickly, in the summer of 1919. The virus may have mutated to become less deadly. But a few simple tactics also helped save lives, some of which are now being used to combat coronavirus.