Has Covid-19 Been Worse Than the 1918 Influenza Pandemic?

Why our current pandemic has arguably been the worst in modern history

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd


Turns out that most stock photo results for “1918 flu” these days are masks. Go figure. Source: Pexels

Throughout the seemingly endless time period since March 2020, there has been one comparison made more than any other — Covid-19 vs the 1918 “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic. While there have been other pandemics in modern history, with serious consequences, the 1918 flu pandemic has stayed with us as one of the most harmful events to strike humanity in the modern era. Obviously, comparisons break down and analogies are imperfect, but the 1918 influenza pandemic was arguably more harmful to humanity than any war or natural disaster in recorded history.

Which does invite the comparison: has Covid-19 been as bad as, or perhaps worse than, the worst thing to ever happen?

The corollary to the saying “the best thing since sliced bread” is “the worst thing since the atomic bomb” but somehow hasn’t caught on in quite the same way. Source: Pexels

Now, the reality is that this question does not have a good answer. There is no single metric by which we can judge how bad two very different events were in the scheme of things. However, that being said, there is actually quite a reasonable argument to make that, based on some metrics, Covid-19 has been worse than the worst pandemic in modern history.

Let’s look at the figures.

Influenza 100 Years Ago

The first thing to acknowledge is that we don’t really know how many people died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. In the early 1900s, death reporting and registration systems were far less advanced than they were today, and it was not until more than a decade after 1918 that the virus that causes influenza was first isolated. Indeed, our counts of mortality from the 1918 pandemic are based on a combination of death registries from a few places combined with a wide variety of reasonable and somewhat less reasonable assumptions about the death toll.

All that being said, the commonly-cited number of deaths in the United States from the 1918/19 influenza pandemic is 675,000 people*. In other words, over the two or so years of the pandemic, roughly 675,000 people died from what was described as the “Spanish flu” (although…