Covid-19 has now killed as many Americans as the 1918-19 influenza pandemic – more than 675,000.
A century ago, the American population was only a third of what it is today, which means that the flu swept through the country in a much bigger and more deadly way. But the Covid-19 crisis is a colossal tragedy in its own right anyway, especially given the incredible advances in scientific knowledge since then and the inability to make the most of the vaccines available this time around.
“Big pockets of American society – and, worse, their leaders – threw this away,” said Dr. Howard Markel, medical historian at the University of Michigan.
Like the flu of 1918-19, the coronavirus may never completely disappear from our community. Instead, scientists hope it will grow into a mild, seasonal insect as human immunity builds up through vaccination and repeated infections. It might take some time.
“We hope it will be like a cold, but there is no guarantee,” said Rustom Antia, a biologist at Emory University, who suggests an optimistic scenario in which it could happen over a few years.
For now, the pandemic still has the United States and other parts of the world firmly in its jaws.
While the spike in infections fueled by the Delta variant may have peaked, deaths in the United States are over 1,900 per day on average – the highest level since early March – and the overall toll of the country topped 675,000 on Monday, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University, although the actual number is believed to be higher.
Winter could bring a new surge, with the influential University of Washington model predicting that about 100,000 more Americans will die from Covid-19 by January 1, bringing the overall U.S. death toll to 776,000.
The 1918-19 influenza pandemic claimed 50 million lives around the world at a time when the world had a quarter of its current population. Deaths from Covid-19 around the world now stand at more than 4.6 million.
The 1918-19 flu death toll in the United States is a rough estimate, given incomplete records at the time and poor scientific understanding of what caused the disease. The figure of 675,000 comes from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before Covid-19, the flu of 1918-19 was universally considered to be the worst pandemic disease in human history. We do not know if the current scourge is ultimately more deadly.
In many ways, the 1918-19 flu – which was mistakenly named the Spanish flu because it first received wide media coverage in Spain – was worse.
Spread by the mobility of World War I, it killed large numbers of healthy young adults.
No vaccine existed to slow it down, and there were no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. And, of course, the world was much smaller.
Yet air travel and massive migration threaten to increase the toll of the current pandemic. Much of the world is not vaccinated. And the coronavirus has been full of surprises.
Just under 64% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, with state rates ranging from highs of around 77% in Vermont and Massachusetts to lows of around 46% in 49% in Idaho, Wyoming, West Virginia and Mississippi. .
Globally, around 43% of the population has received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data, with some African countries just starting to get their first injections.
“We know that all pandemics end,” said Dr. Jeremy Brown, director of emergency care research at the National Institutes of Health, who has written a book on influenza. “They can do terrible things while they are raging.”
Covid-19 could have been a lot less deadly in the United States if more people had been vaccinated faster, “and we still have the opportunity to turn the tide,” Brown said. “We often lose sight of how lucky we are to take these things for granted. “