The Spanish Flu Didn’t Wreck the Global Economy. What Is Different About the Coronavirus Pandemic?

“In October 1918, the Spanish flu descended on Stanford University. Residents donned facemasks, football games were canceled, and students were asked to quarantine on campus. But classes and assemblies continued to meet. … Over a tenth of all students fell ill, and a dozen died…. Yet faculty and students started to abandon face coverings just a month after the initial outbreak. Football returned to campus shortly thereafter, even as the disease lingered throughout the winter.

The contrast with the current coronavirus pandemic is striking. I cannot enter my office at Stanford without special permission from the dean. Almost all undergraduates have left campus, and everyone who can is required to work online. San Francisco County has a per capita fatality rate 99.2 percent lower than that of the 1918–19 pandemic. But two full months after California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered residents to shelter in place, the prospect of even a gradual return to normalcy remains elusive at best.”

What has happened to humanity in the past hundred years? With all our technological advances, have we lost our courage? 

Walter Scheidel, Professor of Classics and History at Stanford University, says yes. 

In 1918, “Americans still inhabited a physical and mental universe that had not yet been sanitized by modern science,’ he argues. “Over the last hundred years, peace, medicine, and prosperity have steered humanity toward greater comfort, safety, and predictability. For the first time in history, the residents of the developed world have good reason to expect science to shield and heal them.”

Only one of my patients remembers the pre-antibiotic era. He is 99 years old and likes to tell me the story of how my father gave him a shot of the miracle drug penicillin 70 years ago. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t afraid to come into the office last month. On the other hand, I’ve had a couple of healthy young men so afraid of coming to the office that they show up double-masked, with gloves, tremulous, and cowering in a corner. They seem proud that they haven’t returned to their physical workplace in 4 months and they don’t plan to resume life until there is a vaccine.  

Professor Scheidel ascribes our response to the 2020 Pandemic to fear. It is a fear “unfamiliar in these times of prosperity and science.” We expect all our children to live into adulthood. It is hard for us to understand how recent this expectation is. Erik Larson wrote in “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” that Churchill had a formula for family size. Four children was the ideal number: “One to reproduce your wife, one to reproduce yourself, one for the increase in population, and one in case of accident.”

Some baseball players are afraid to play despite belonging to a group (young, physically fit) with little to fear from The Virus. Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals and Ian Desmond of the Colorado Rockies decided to sit out the season. According to the New York Times, Zimmerman, 35, has earned about $136 million in his career and won a World Series. Desmond, 34, has made $76 million. They can retire nicely. They are near the end of their careers anyway. It’s fine with me if they choose not to play; but though they can avoid baseball, they can’t avoid risk of Corona. In fact, they would be safer at the ballpark than in the community. Limiting contact to a group that gets tested for COVID twice a week seems safer than encountering random people at the grocery store.

Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking of their predecessors whose earnings were on a par with regular human beings. Ballplayers in the early 1900’s risked death from blood poisoning (sepsis) after getting spiked. It was believed that the colored stockings were the problem and that’s why ball players started wearing white ‘sanitary’ socks under colored stirrups. Presidents’ families weren’t immune from deadly skin infections either. Calvin Coolidge’s 16 year-old son died of blood poisoning after he got a blister on his foot from playing tennis at the White House.

Top scientists such as Nobel prize nominee and media darling Anthony Fauci didn’t anticipate the full effect of this virus. As late as Feb 28, he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968).” No one anticipated this novel coronavirus would put a chokehold on our economy like no other virus. To be fair to Dr. Fauci, his estimate of the case fatality rate was not wrong (the 2019-20 Wuhan coronavirus fatality rate is in the same ballpark as the 1957 Asian flu and the 1968 Hong Kong flu). The overall clinical fatality rates are similar, but the socio-economic consequences are much different.

Even though New York is in Phase 4 reopening and our cases are way down, New York has not come back to life. I was at a diner this morning (in Rockland County, which had the highest per capita death rate of all counties in NY) wasting time while my car was being serviced. I was the only customer in this large, normally crowded diner. It was just the owner, one waiter, one cook and me from 8 to 9 AM. After suffering COVID worse than any other region in the world, it is only natural for New Yorkers to be wary. However, if we follow science and data as our Governor wants, we would know that New York is the safest place in the United States right now. Its almost as if the media want to scare people. By emphasizing the worst possible scenarios, the media disrupt our economy, our way of life.

It is time for New Yorkers to come out of hiding. Wear a mask. Give each other some space. And start living life again. 

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  11 comments for “The Spanish Flu Didn’t Wreck the Global Economy. What Is Different About the Coronavirus Pandemic?

  1. Gary Pearce
    July 30, 2020 at 4:47 pm

    Good point…..everybody now has unrealistic expectations that they will live into their 90’s. Life expectancy is obviously multifactorial. The problem now is that patients eat, drink, smoke, get fat and then expect us to save them from themselves. Death is normal. It does not mean the doctor did anything wrong. We are not omnipotent. There is fate, there is karma. Some people are born dead. Everyone just needs to be thankful and appreciative and live a clean life. There may never be a vaccine- that is a possibility- or we could all die in a nuclear armageddon. So wake up and be happy. Don’t let the numbers get you down. The public health doctors have a job- let them do it. THERE WILL ALWAYS BE DISEASE AND DEATH. Humans need to socialize and viruses know how to take advantage of that fact. Plus they can mutate. You guys can stop worrying about overpopulation…..plagues thin the herd!

  2. arf
    July 29, 2020 at 3:57 pm

    Here is one economic analysis of the Spanish Flu.

    My take is short-lived economic pain, followed by strong growth in the 1920’s.

    Speaking of World War One, “He Kept Us Out of War”, and all that…….one anecdote I like. Woodrow Wilson fell ill during the Versailles Conference, almost certainly Spanish flu. His physician at the time reported that President Wilson was “violently sick”.

    British PM David Lloyd George, and especially French PM Clemenceau, wanted to come down really hard on the Germans. Wilson favored a more lenient policy. The hard-liners got their way, especially since was Wilson was somewhat sidelined from influenza.His aides reported at the time, that he was mentally changes after his illness.

    He developed obsessions, and thought he was surrounded by French spies. (Then again, he was in France). Irwin Hoover, the President’s chief usher, said “We could but surmise that something queer was happening in his mind”……“One thing is certain: he was never the same after this little spell of sickness.”

    Hard to resist the speculation what might have been, had Wilson been able to push for better terms for Germany.

    • Kurt
      July 30, 2020 at 7:45 pm

      You read “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry, didn’t you.
      great read!

  3. Rick
    July 28, 2020 at 10:33 am

    “almost as if the media want to scare people”
    For the love of God, Russell, yes, it doesn’t seem that way, it IS that way!
    They do nothing BUT scare people. They love to scare people. And it is working. Americans are hiding under their beds in record numbers, crashing this economy and disrupting incredible progress. Why? Russia didn’t work.. Ukraine didn’t work. Impeachment didn’t work…And then THIS gift fell in the laps of the Democratic Party. And since the media are the PR arm of the Dem party, they are dutifully working to make the Presidents life as difficult as possible. By SCARING people.

    • Stewart
      July 29, 2020 at 11:54 am

      “since the media are the PR arm of the Dem party”

      And who can forget how they worked hand-in-hand with the Democrats to terrify the American voter right before the 2014 mid-terms?

      What? Oh, never mind . . .

      • Stewart
        July 29, 2020 at 11:54 am

        meant to be “terrify the American voter about Ebola”

      • Gloria
        August 2, 2020 at 12:56 pm

        Why??? To read comments like these makes me think that our congress is run like 15 year old caddie teenager girls.. When will you, you who have written your comments see that unless INTELLIGENT adults sit at the table to discuss our (MY) fate than no solution will come. Their pockets get full at peoples lives. Lives??? Do not let it come close to home!!! We can not ALL live forever, but do not let it come close to home.

  4. Harrietta Christodoulos
    July 27, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    I agree. To listen to the radio quoting statistics of how many cases there are that are positive without any context is just bad journalism. Of course, the US has a lot of cases, the US also has a large population. Surprise, surprise.

    • Jay S Cooperman
      August 1, 2020 at 2:48 pm

      Speaking of context, we have only 4% of the world’s population and almost 23% of the world’s total deaths from Covid. The reasons for this are complex, ranging from an unforgivably poorly coordinated response to possibly less natural immunity in our population, more freedom of movement and of course generally crappy lifestyle choices and more chronic disease than in most countries.

      Fear is a tool which is used equally by both sides of the political divide. Its how the most invasive surveillance of the US population was justified after 9/11, it is behind Trump’s anti-immigrant distraction and it is certainly being used against Trump as well. And that is unfortunate, because this is a time when courage would go a long way in getting our country through Covid. Given that we all seem to expect to live to be 100 with minimal sacrifice on our part, the reaction to Covid is hardly surprising. In the absence of a coherent federal response, it has left states with the task of figuring out how to balance the need to get us back to work and school without killing everyone’s grandma. I’m all for less fear mongering. There has to be a middle ground between keeping schools and businesses shut down vs stubborn refusal to wear masks in public, much less at home, where grandma is going to catch covid from those who are busy getting educated and earning a living. A little common sense would go a long way.

  5. Rusty Shackleford
    July 27, 2020 at 8:30 am


  6. Sir Lance-a-lot
    July 27, 2020 at 8:09 am

    While I agree that young people being actually frightened by this virus is ridiculous, young people continuing to exercise caution is a good idea, as it helps prevent the virus from spreading to more susceptible members of society.

    As a physician, I wear a mask in crowded places, avoid going into places I don’t have to go into, and keep my distance from others, out of an obligation to reduce the chances that I might infect, and possibly kill, one of my patients. Personally, I believe my wife and I have already had the virus, so I am not worried about it myself, but while I may believe that, I am not certain, and my obligation to my patients and other people does not evaporate just because I believe something.

    As far as the Spanish Flu and the response of society at the time, it is important to remember that the Spanish Flu behaved differently than the ‘Rona. The Spanish Flu had an incubation period of only one or two days, people who had it essentially always appeared sick, and it would often kill its victims within another one or two days. Compare this with the Flu du Jour, which can incubate for up to 2 weeks (4-6 days being the most common), can be transmitted by people with no symptoms whatsoever, and, when fatal, takes about 3-4 weeks from infection to death. A hundred years ago, if you could avoid anyone with a cough, and you yourself felt okay, you could be pretty confident you were good to go. Not so today, where you can go to a party, feel fine, come home and kill Grandma.

    Add to that the fact that a hundred years ago we were involved in a World War, with the government, led by a President whose campaign slogan had been “He Kept Us Out of War!” clamping down on the press and on any dissent in a way that we would associate more with Communist Russia than with the US today— the Federal government never did anything or made a single pronouncement regarding the Flu, and some newspapers were prosecuted from writing stories about it.

    So, yeah, they responded differently to the Spanish Flu than we are to the WuTang Flu. It was a different disease that presented in a different way and existed in a different country under different conditions.

    You live in Rockland. You saw how the disease blew through the people in your area. One of my coworkers was reassigned to Rockland while I stayed and did my job at home. She told me how bad it was in the hospital she was at. The odds are that more people in the NY area are immune than we think at this point, so we don’t need to freak out, but we’d really rather not go through that again if we can avoid it, and we’d certainly prefer not to see it happen anywhere else (a bit late for that, it seems), so we should behave ourselves until this is over and we can be reasonably certain that the most susceptible are protected.
    It will end, even if we don’t find a vaccine right away, but we owe it to the older and the sicker to watch out for them until it does.

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