As governments and societies across the world struggle with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and scientists look to modelling to see how various approaches might impact the worldwide trajectory of the virus, some observers are drawing comparisons to another pandemic that happened over a century ago. The so-called Spanish flu of 1918, which is thought to have claimed the lives of 50 million people worldwide, has been used as a reference point, showing how COVID-19 compares to other pandemics through history.
While the 1918 flu and COVID-19 are different diseases, and much has changed in the world of medicine since then, newspaper advertisements from 1918 show that, in some ways, the two moments are strikingly similar.
“We say that history is in cycles and that history repeats itself, and for this it’s exactly the same in several aspects,” says Elisabeth Zetland, a researcher at MyHeritage, which has a database of 11.9 billion searchable historical records, including newspapers, largely specializing in family history. (The newspapers are searchable here.) In early March, as the coronavirus started spreading rapidly, Zetland searched for “Spanish flu” in MyHeritage’s historical newspaper collection. “What struck me were the similarities,” she says, “and I was not expecting them to be so strong compared to now.”