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The pandemic 1918

2020-10-30 at 13:51 Timo Löyttyniemi

A book about a crisis is seldom published before it happens. Normally, a large amount of writings are released after the fact. An exception to this rule is ‘Pale Rider – the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world’ by L. Spinner which deals with the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918. It was published in 2017, a couple of years before the eruption of the coronavirus. A lucky coincidence with the publication date was that the interpretation of the 1918 pandemic presented in the book is not distorted by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. It can be read as a book in its own right.

The book deals with a period when World War I was still going on. At that time, the main means of transport over longer distances was the railway and ships, and news travelled via the telegraph. While globalisation had not reached the point in which we are today, people’s movements were affected by the war. The world was different in many ways. Another factor complicating the comparison of these two diseases is that World War I ended in November 1918 at a moment when the second wave of the pandemic was still spreading.

The Spanish flu of 1918 helps us understand the current coronavirus crisis. Here are a few conclusions drawn in the book:

  • People had no idea of what was going on

The Spanish flu started spreading extensively in March 1918, first in the United States. Even today we do not know where the disease first appeared geographically, but a bird-pig-man infection chain seems likely. In 1918, the disease was wrapped in mystery. Physicians lacked the necessary information and skills. People disagreed on the use of face masks and were advised to try tobacco or alcohol as a remedy, as well as aspirin, which led to an excessive intake causing further problems.

  • The disease spread across the world at different times

Since one hundred years ago the disease and information did not travel as fast today, the pandemic surged at different times in different parts of the word, causing confusion every time this happened.

  • The disease spread in three waves

The first wave came in spring 1918, followed by the second in autumn 1918 and by the third right after that.

  • The pandemic varied in how dangerous it was

The second wave was the most lethal while the first was the mildest. The third was something in between. The virus only posed a serious risk to a proportion of those infected. For most people, it was no different from a seasonal flu.

  • Went away without a vaccine

After the waves of infections, the virus disappeared. Of course, the end of a virus cannot be declared in the same way as that of a war.

  • The havoc the virus wreaked was massive

Over the decades, the death toll figures have varied. The current estimate is around 50 million dead, most of them in Asia.

  • The Spanish flu did not start in Spain

When the disease erupted in Spain, the Spanish thought it had originated in their country. As the neighbouring countries were content with this explanation, the term ‘Spanish flu’ stuck.

  • President Trump as a common denominator

One thing the two pandemics have in common is President Donald Trump. His grandfather died unexpectedly of a viral disease in May 1918. According to the book, the indemnity received by his grandmother under a life insurance policy gave a capital infusion for the expansion of the family’s real estate business in New York. And the rest is history.

  • The pandemic gave new momentum to the development of public healthcare

According to the book, governments launched major projects to improve public healthcare systems after the pandemic in the 1920s. Even the origins of the World Health Organisation can be traced back to that period.

  • Baby boom

Wars tend to be followed by baby booms. According to scientists, the end of the pandemic also contributed to the post-war boom.

  • The advice given in the book was not heeded

The book lists a number of tips – in 2017 – on how to prepare for future pandemics. An international report (GHRF) had previously, in 2016, proposed that EUR 4 billion of public and private funds be invested annually in four areas to prevent a pandemic. The money was to be spent on skilled and motived public healthcare personnel; a disease monitoring system; an efficient network of laboratories; and local cooperation.

We see that despite their differences, the 1918 and 2020 pandemics have a lot in common. One hundred years is a long time. A lot has been written about war, but surprisingly little about pandemics. However, the destruction they cause may be of the same order of magnitude, both in financial and human terms. As a result, the scales of the ‘probability’ and ‘impact’ indicators used in the risk management context reach a new levelas far as pandemics are concerned. But first we need to overcome this pandemic.


Laura Spinney ”Pale Rider – the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world”, Penguin Random House, 2017.

The writer is VER's CEO Timo Löyttyniemi.

TLö blogi 2020