The Biggest Difference Between Spanish Flu and Coronavirus COVID-19

As the fear of a Coronavirus outbreak sweeps the globe, it’s been compared to the Spanish Flu. But Spanish Flu had one major difference no one mentioned—it attacked the young and healthy including professional athletes

Between January 1918 and December 1920, Spanish Flu infected an estimated 500 Million people and resulted in an estimated 17–100 Million deaths worldwide.

Those numbers mean a quarter of the world’s population got Spanish Flu, and it killed 1–5% of the world’s population. To put it another way, Spanish Flu killed more people than World War One.

In short, Spanish Flu was one of the deadliest epidemics in history, on par with The Black Death of the 1300's.

While it may be true that hand sanitizer didn’t exist in 1300 or 1918, the spread of Spanish Flu was unique to the post industrial moment in world history.

To summarize, the spread of Spanish flu is very much attributed to the technological advances brought about during the Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, mass transportation allowed unprecedented world travel via locomotive, street car, and ocean liner.

Subsequently, Spanish Flu spread throughout the globe — in three increasingly deadly waves — via the population and troop movements related to World War 1. It was everywhere.

Whereas COVID-19 is contagious to all, yet reportedly most fatal for the elderly and those with weakened immune systems — Spanish Flu was especially deadly for healthy young adults.

This was due to Spanish Flu markedly causing an especially lethal cytokine storm. In essence, the Spanish Flu cytokine storm is described as a “rapid overreaction” of the body’s immune system.

The weaker immune system reactions of children and older adults, in effect, spared their lives. Meanwhile, the robust immune system reactions of young adults ravaged the body, and is said to have killed quickly.

Regardless, medicine didn’t have good answers for viruses in 1918–1920.

For example, ventilators (which are lifesavers for severe cases) weren’t invented until 1929. Lacking these and many other subsequent medical advancements, those stricken with Spanish Flu essentially suffocated to death.

The NHL Stanley Cup bears a stark reminder of Spanish Flu

Consequently, it was inevitable that Spanish Flu would hit the world of Sports. Athletes traveled as much in 1919 as they do now, with the same associated risks of exposure.

Imagine MLB (or sports) history without Babe Ruth. Indeed, for all the Babe’s great feats, perhaps his greatest act of heroism is the lesser known reports that he contracted and recovered from Spanish Flu twice.

On the other hand, the NHL was not so lucky. The 1919 Stanley Cup Finals between the Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans were canceled after only five games.

This was due to several players on both teams having contracted Spanish Flu. One player would consequently die. He was future NHL Hall of Famer, “Bad” Joe Hall.

Joe Hall, courtesy of wikipedia

While it may be true that the threat of Coronavirus has been weighing on your mind lately, imagine if it was specifically targeting and killing young, healthy people around the world — including several professional athletes.

You would think that the deaths of 3–8% of the world population between the Word War 1 and Spanish Flu would motivate the survivors to live in peace and harmony. But if you look back at the history of 1919, you see a world embroiled in utter chaos.

Surprisingly, one cultural touchstone has stayed stuck in the Zeitgeist for the entire past century — the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919.

The Black Sox were injected into American culture by F. Scott Fitzgerald when he referenced them in The Great Gatsby. Later books like Asimov’s Eight Men Out and Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe lead to the movie Field Of Dreams.

More recently, the Black Sox get brought up when discussing the widespread legalization of sports gambling — coupled with the latest MLB Astros cheating scandal.

And now, here the Black Sox are again, part of this larger story as the world gets re-educated about the Spanish Flu.

In reality, Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox never left the American Zeitgeist. It’s a mysterious, twisted story back through history, yet ever-present.

Attempts to contain the Coronavirus will increase in the coming months. The nation of Italy is under quarantine. In the US, the NHL, NBA, NCAA, and MLB have already discussed playing games in empty arenas.

Hence, there’s a chance that when the White Sox play the Yankees on August 13th, 2020 at the Field of Dreams, only the ghosts in the corn will be in attendance.

The sticking power of the Black Sox is just one offshoot of the COVID-19 story. And yet, I find it truly compelling the way their story has evolved and now acts as this conduit, as an on ramp, to the dark history of a century ago.

Certainly there are lessons we can learn when we look back...

  • **Update by 3/12/20 — the NBA had canceled its season, followed shortly thereafter by MLB, NHL and all other major sports.***

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