BY SCO Admin | February 21 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Spanish flu paralleled with coronavirus in a look back at virus which killed millions

Ian Dunn compares the coronavirus with the Spanish Flu epidemic which occurred over 100 years ago and how human beings today still fear pestilence

The Press gets a hard time these days—and not without reason. But I can tell you, as a mostly recovering journalist, if a story sticks around the front pages for days and weeks it’s because people are desperate to read about it.

So you can be sure that the coronavirus is the thing in the world which people are most interested in right now. They are fascinated by it. A smart Alec would pop in at this point and say that regular flu kills as many in a week as coronavirus has in its whole existence, but the response tells you something interesting.

We still have a deep and fundamental fear of pestilence. Some ancient part of us is always alert to a strange new disease. For all our medical advances and modern technology, we know there’s something here to fear.

Epidemic panic

We sense, too, that there’s probably more going on than the Chinese government is saying. In previous epidemics, and as a matter of course, that authoritarian regime is not a friend to the truth.

At these times, it’s useful, if not reassuring, to look to the past. A new book Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History provides a shocking insight into the Spanish Flu which killed millions just over a century ago.

It’s powerful because it’s personal, telling the stories of people like Fr Patrick Brosnan, an Irish immigrant priest who ended up serving in the Irish American stronghold of Butte, Montana, and whose diary provides a fascinating account.

He would surely sympathise with the thousands of people who have been diagnosed with coronavirus and the families of those who died. 

Spanish Flu

A century ago, in every corner of the earth, a different kind of virus disaster—the Spanish Flu—killed millions.

November was a particularly brutal month, forcing caregivers such as Fr Brosnan to tend to the sick and dying. He laboured to ease the Spanish Flu crisis, right up until he caught the disease himself and died.

As many as 100 million people worldwide may have died from the flu, which is believed to have originated in Spain (hence its name), and was spread rapidly, in part because of all of the troops moving across the world in the final stages of World War I.


Entire cities were shuttered and quarantined during the autumn months of 1918, which should have been a joyous time after the end of the war to end all wars.

In Scotland, 20,000 died; in England and Wales more than 150,000. 25,000 perished in Ireland, where theatres and dance halls across the country were shuttered to minimise public contact and halt the spread of the disease. Indeed, one theory holds that Catholics were hit harder than Protestants in Ireland because church-going rates among Catholics were higher.

It is unlikely that coronavirus will have such a terrible impact. Yet Spanish Flu shows there are good reasons why we eagerly click every headline about it.

In the words of the Pope, let us ‘pray for our Chinese brothers and sisters’ and all those who are affected by this ‘cruel’ epidemic. ‘May they find a path to recovery as soon as possible.’

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