An interview piece on Healthline has a few experts discussing the coronavirus. One health historian claims that “In 1918-19, the seasonal influenza eventually tapered off on its own. Everything I understand about our current situation is that is unlikely.” Another expert claims that “We haven’t done a good job so far containing the virus. We have to be very careful. We cannot sustain this level of mortality.” 

I have two questions. Why did the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 taper off on its own, but the coronavirus cannot? And, why is this level of mortality not sustainable when the “seasonal” Spanish Flu lasted 14 months and took a total of 20 million (maybe even 50 million) lives, worldwide? 

We are 6 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, we are at 750,000 total deaths worldwide. At the current rate of 6,500 deaths per day, we will have reached a total of 2,420,500 lives lost in 14 months. The thought that this level of mortality is “not sustainable” makes me question what the word “sustainable” actually means. If the world was able to withstand the Spanish flu with the horribly tragic numbers of upwards of 50 million lives lost, how are we not able to withstand the current numbers today? We’re here aren’t we? Yelling, typing, protesting, and ravaging our political and social institutions with more vitality than I can remember, but I digress.

If we look solely at the US, the Spanish flu claimed 675,000 lives in 14 months. Since March, we are at 166,000. It has been 163 days since the outset of the pandemic. We can calculate a back-of-the-envelope average of 1,019 deaths per day. If we continue at that rate, we would reach 427,980 deaths at the end of 14 months, which are 420 days in total–247,020 deaths less than in 1919. And, this is assuming that we stay at that heightened average daily rate of deaths. The graphs below shows that this rate of death is unlikely with the extreme bending of the curve for virtually every single country. 

Furthermore, if we include population comparisons, COVID-19 becomes much milder relative to the Spanish flu. In 1917, one year before the Spanish flu hit, the world population was at 1.9 billion and the United States was at 100 million. Today, the population of the world is more than 7.6 billion and the US has reached more than 330 million. 

These numbers mean that 1.6% to 2.6% (20 million to 50 million) of the world population was killed by the Spanish flu. COVID-19, if it continues on the track of claiming 6,500 deaths per day for 14 months will have killed 0.03% of the world population. The difference is more than 193%! 

On top of these numbers, we have our technological and medical advances. Today, we can share information with the click of a button, we can “socially distance” a bit more easily, and we have the tools to monitor our health more effectively. We have improved processes of hygeine and sanitation. Modern advances such as clean running water, air conditioning, and the automobile are staples in the large majority of households in the US. Our modern financial system, despite its flaws, has been able to combat the downturn in aggregate demand with cash stimuli to keep families afloat.

Even with these modern advances not being around during the Spanish flu, the US experienced a period of unprecedented growth. New technologies, political institutions, and wealth exploded in the West. Though much of this growth was focused in the US, today, it may be safe to consider that countries like India and China will see economic growth after this calamitous blip in human history.

So, why is it that we can’t handle this pandemic, but we handled the Spanish flu, which was, statistically, more devastating by at least one order of magnitude? I know they are different, but why must we all sing to the same tune? It’s not obvious to me that the fear-mongering is not completely the result of it being an election year. Help me believe. I really want to.

3 thoughts on “A Thought on COVID-19 Not Being “Sustainable”

  1. Great work, Kevin. Your comment about possible growth in China and India is an interesting idea. We will see what happens. In regards to fear-mongoring during an election year, compare various countries’ responses to the pandemic categorized by whether or not 2020 is an election year for that country. The U.S. had an election in 1920 which was at the end of the Spanish Flu.

    1. That’s a good research question! From what I’ve read, the pandemic ended in the summer of 1919. One year before the election. The Spanish flu did have propaganda effects. It is theorized that the Spanish flu was attributed to Spain because they had remained neutral during World War 1, so instead of increasing more death counts with the war at hand, they called it the Spanish flu. So, it was a way of fear-mongering but from a different angle.

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