• Ideas
  • COVID-19

The World Changed Its Approach to Health After the 1918 Flu. Will It After The COVID-19 Outbreak?

7 minute read

As the world grapples with a global health emergency that is COVID-19, many are drawing parallels with a pandemic of another infectious disease – influenza – that took the world by storm just over 100 years ago. We should hope against hope that this one isn’t as bad, but the 1918 flu had momentous long-term consequences – not least for the way countries deliver healthcare. Could COVID-19 do the same?

The 1918 flu pandemic claimed at least 50 million lives, or 2.5 per cent of the global population, according to current estimates. It washed over the world in three waves. A relatively mild wave in the early months of 1918 was followed by a far more lethal second wave that erupted in late August. That receded towards the end of the year, only to be reprised in the early months of 1919 by a third and final wave that was intermediate in severity between the other two. The vast majority of the deaths occurred in the 13 weeks between mid-September and mid-December 1918. It was a veritable tidal wave of death – the worst since the Black Death of the 14th-century – and possibly in all of human history.

Flu and COVID-19 are different diseases, but they have certain things in common. They are both respiratory diseases, spread on the breath and hands as well as, to some extent, via surfaces. Both are caused by viruses, and both are highly contagious. COVID-19 kills a considerably higher proportion of those it infects, than seasonal flu, but it’s not yet clear how it measures up, in terms of lethality, to pandemic flu – the kind that caused the 1918 disaster. Both are what are known as “crowd diseases”, spreading most easily when people are packed together at high densities – in favelas, for example, or trenches. This is one reason historians agree that the 1918 pandemic hastened the end of the First World War, since both sides lost so many troops to the disease in the final months of the conflict – a silver lining, of sorts.

Crowd diseases exacerbate human inequities. Though everyone is susceptible, more or less, those who live in crowded and sub-standard accommodation are more susceptible than most. Malnutrition, overwork and underlying conditions can compromise a person’s immune deficiencies. If, on top of everything else, they don’t have access to good-quality healthcare, they become even more susceptible. Today as in 1918, these disadvantages often coincide, meaning that the poor, the working classes and those living in less developed countries tend to suffer worst in an epidemic. To illustrate that, an estimated 18 million Indians died during the 1918 flu – the highest death toll of any country, in absolute numbers, and the equivalent of the worldwide death toll of the First World War.

Keep up to date with our daily coronavirus newsletter by clicking here.

In 1918, the explanation for these inequities was different. Eugenics was then a mainstream view, and privileged elites looked down on workers and the poor as inferior categories of human being, who lacked the drive to achieve a better standard of living. If they sickened and died from typhus, cholera and other crowd diseases, the reasons were inherent to them, rather than to be found in their often abysmal living conditions. In the context of an epidemic, public health generally referred to a suite of measures designed to protect those elites from the contaminating influence of the diseased underclasses. When bubonic plague broke out in India in 1896, for example, the British colonial authorities instigated a brutal public health campaign that involved disinfecting, fumigating and sometimes burning indigenous Indian homes to the ground. Initially, at least, they refused to believe that the disease was spread by rat fleas. If they had, they would have realized that a better strategy might have been to inspect imported merchandise rather than people, and to de-rat buildings rather than disinfect them.

Healthcare was much more fragmented then, too. In industrialized countries, most doctors either worked for themselves or were funded by charities or religious institutions, and many people had no access to them at all. Virus was a relatively new concept in 1918, and when the flu arrived medics were almost helpless. They had no reliable diagnostic test, no effective vaccine, no antiviral drugs and no antibiotics – which might have treated the bacterial complications of the flu that killed most of its victims, in the form of pneumonia. Public health measures – especially social distancing measures such as quarantine that we’re employing again today – could be effective, but they were often implemented too late, because flu was not a reportable disease in 1918. This meant that doctors weren’t obliged to report cases to the authorities, which in turn meant that those authorities failed to see the pandemic coming.

The lesson that health authorities took away from the 1918 catastrophe was that it was no longer reasonable to blame individuals for catching an infectious disease, nor to treat them in isolation. The 1920s saw many governments embracing the concept of socialized medicine – healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery. Russia was the first country to put in place a centralized public healthcare system, which it funded via a state-run insurance scheme, but Germany, France and the UK eventually followed suit. The U.S. took a different route, preferring employer-based insurance schemes – which began to proliferate from the 1930s on – but all of these nations took steps to consolidate healthcare, and to expand access to it, in the post-flu years.

Many countries also created or revamped health ministries in the 1920s. This was a direct result of the pandemic, during which public health leaders had been either left out of cabinet meetings entirely, or reduced to pleading for funds and powers from other departments. Countries also recognized the need to coordinate public health at the international level, since clearly, contagious diseases didn’t respect borders. 1919 saw the opening, in Vienna, Austria, of an international bureau for fighting epidemics – a forerunner, along with the health branch of the short-lived League of Nations, of today’s World Health Organization (WHO).

A hundred years on from the 1918 flu, the WHO is offering a global response to a global threat. But the WHO is underfunded by its member nations, many of which have ignored its recommendations – including the one not to close borders. COVID-19 has arrived at a time when European nations are debating whether their healthcare systems, now creaking under the strain of larger, aging populations, are still fit for purpose, and when the US is debating just how universal its system really is.

Depending on how bad this new pandemic gets, it may force a rethink in both regions. In the U.S., for example, we have already seen heated discussion of the costs and availability of COVID-19 testing, which could help revive the proposals to make healthcare more affordable, that President Obama put forward in his 2010 healthcare reform plan. In Europe, meanwhile, the outbreak could re-ignite a long-running debate over whether people should pay to use national health services (other than indirectly, through taxes or insurance schemes) – for example through a monthly membership fee. Whether current outbreak generates real change remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: we are being reminded that pandemics are a social problem, not an individual one.

Please send any tips, leads, and stories to virus@time.com.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.