Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Noah Smith

Why Coronavirus Is Punishing the Economy More than Spanish Flu

Though the 1918 outbreak was deadlier, the industries that dominated then were less vulnerable to a pandemic. 

A little perspective.

A little perspective.

Photographer: Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive

To history buffs, the Covid-19 pandemic must seem eerily familiar. Almost exactly a century ago, another respiratory virus ripped across the world, killing millions in months. In 1918 and 1919, the so-called Spanish Flu (which actually started elsewhere, possibly in Austria or Kansas), spread by World War I troop movements, killing between 17 million and 100 million people worldwide. That included 675,000 deaths in the U.S.; an equivalent share of today’s population would be about 2 million, near the upper limit for the estimates of possible coronavirus deaths.

This catastrophe naturally hurt the economy. The Spanish Flu, unlike Covid-19, tended to kill people in their 20s and 30s -- their peak productive years. Additionally, many cities responded to the threat the same way states are now with social distancing. These included closing schools and churches, banning mass gatherings, mandated mask-wearing and other restrictions.