Are You Still Comparing Coronavirus to 1918 Spanish Flu? Please Stop

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I’ve seen numerous accounts recently of other writers, bloggers and journalists suggesting that the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic will be a good model for what the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic will be like. It isn’t, and so far, I doubt that it will.

In 1918, the Spanish flu virus swept the globe and more than 40 million people perished. 1 in 5 people were estimated to have been affected and mortality rates were high. In 2009. the H1N1 virus came back again, only this time we were ready.

Models estimated that 65,000 people would die in the UK alone. Pigs were killed all over the world and schools were closed down. The NHS was overrun with people presenting with all kinds of symptoms, rushing to deal with patients who wanted an appointment with a doctor, worried that they would be among the next to die. The media drew comparisons then to the Spanish Flu pandemic and whipped up hysterical frenzy. Panic buyers cleared the shelves and many schools were closed down. Although we were fighting the same virus, we had powerful antiviral medications to help.

I know this, because I was among many of the medical staff who worked tirelessly to find an end to that problem. Part of my job was to trace down prescriptions for antivirals as they had been signed off by our doctors. It was hard, but thanks to effective staffing, modern medicine and the development of a vaccine, we managed.

In the end, 200,000 people still perished worldwide with less than 500 of the 65,000 predicted in the UK. The overall mortality rate was 0.02%, less than seasonal flu. What made it so hard for many of the doctors was emotional toll, many of the patients who died were young. Swine flu doesn’t just go for the old and the vulnerable, it also likes the young. Doctors aren’t just doctors, they also have lives at home. Many of them have children who are the same age as those that they couldn’t save, some older, some were even younger.

Since Coronavirus started to sweep the globe, I, among many other people have been swept up in a heightened state of anxiety, waiting for this bug to come for me. More than 16,000 dead as of today the reports say, but there is a figure in green on Worldometers that we perhaps should pay more attention to in these darkened times – more than 101,000 have also recovered, thanks to modern medicine.

When the Coronavirus pandemic started out, the mortality estimate was between 3.4 and 3.7%. By contrast, at the beginning of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, it was as high as 7%. If we take the (allbeit flawed) model for calculating these percentages, we divide the deaths (16,312 at time of writing) and divide by the total number of cases. We get a figure of 0.042%, twice that of swine flu when the last pandemic ended.

Figures can go up or down, of course, and by no means am I telling you not to worry. Part of the problem with a novel Coronavirus is that nobody really knows where or when it will end. Reducing transmissions helps to reduce fatalities in those who are more vulnerable, and for that, we can all do our bit.

Many things appear to make Coronavirus better or worse for some people, including age, sex, and state of health. Smoking and air quality have also been suggested factors, though it seems more studies need to be conducted on this. A lot of those who are severely worried about Coronavirus won’t necessarily be the ones that the virus kills. They are, however, the ones that should be social distancing. Instead of stoking fears in young people, we need to empower them to help take positive steps. Young people won’t be encouraged to act if they’re engrossed in fatalistic thinking.

At this time, we need to ask to work together. More important than focusing on how many could die, we need to focus on how many have died and how we can lessen those (usually grossly exaggerated) predictions. Stoking fears of a repeat of a pandemic from a century ago won’t do anything to help anyone in the long run, least of all our stretched and overworked medical staff. Instead of telling people how many deaths there might be, we need to be promoting effective ways to help each other from becoming one of them.

Be Bold, Be Bright, Be Beautiful,

Helen xx

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