Frightening Lessons from the 1918 Pandemic and Why History May Repeat

COVID-19 has the advantages of simple math, human overconfidence and Mother Nature’s lack of empathy

Aug. 27, 1918, two sailors at a pier in Boston came down with Spanish Flu. They were the first people in the United States to be stricken by the virus. Within a week, 100 sailors at the pier were falling victim each day. By September, one person was dying every 9 minutes in Boston. The flu spread across the country and by spring of 1919 had killed 675,000 Americans in a pandemic that left more than 50 million people dead around the world.

“In Boston, officials closed schools and tried to limit crowded gatherings to combat the spread of the disease,” according to . “Their efforts met with some success, but when World War I ended [on Nov. 11, 1918], crowds gathered to celebrate the armistice. Boston’s Health Department reported that cases of flu increased immediately after the celebration of the armistice.”

A century later, armed with far more scientific knowledge and ample time to plan, governments and health officials face a virulent disease that history may well liken to the Spanish Flu.

It’s all about the math, overconfidence, political dawdling and Mother Nature’s lack of empathy, says Skip Desjardin, author of “.”

“The biggest challenge of any pandemic is math, more than science,” says Desjardin tell me. “The exponential nature in which a virus spreads makes it very difficult to contain. Every infected person potentially spreads it to each person with whom they come in contact, and those people each spread it to even more.”

Knowns & unknowns

The 1918–19 influenza virus killed 2% of the people it infected, far more than the 0.1% rate for typical seasonal flu. The  remains to be determined, but appears to be at least 10 times that of the seasonal flu, says today’s top infectious disease health official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. While most young people seem to escape the worst effects, older people and those with pre-existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable.

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