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Death early 20th Century and before

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The 1918 flu pandemic and the coronavirus pandemic

1918 influenza virus versus the 2020 coronavirus

Which was worse? The 1918 influenza pandemic or the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19? It is too early to know precisely how many deaths coronavirus is going to cause. I try to keep this page up-to-date, but at the moment it is a never-ending task. As I write in early September 2020, it is approaching a million worldwide. In contrast, deaths from the 1918 influenza pandemic are known to be above 50,000,000 which makes the 1918 pandemic look far worse than the 2020 one.

Yet something about these numbers doesn't seem right to me, which I hope that you can clarify.

Was the flu pandemic data largely hidden from the British public?

What I don't understand is this: Why, in view of my mother's detailed account of life in the early 20th century in England, did she not mention the flu epidemic? She was well-acquainted with death, as is shown by her detailed description of her baby sister’s death in 1911. She also described funerals more generally, funeral costs and how people let one another know about deaths. The flu was thought to have been brought to Britain by the returning soldiers from the trenches and she even wrote about the World War One home front.

I also wonder why my own well-documented research into family history shows no causes of death as the influenza pandemic. In fact, although people clearly must have died in 1918/19 in England, such deaths have been curiously few in my own records. Is this your experience?

Why might facts about the 1918 flu pandemic be lost or hidden?

I can suggest a couple of explanations, although I would appreciate hearing yours. It is a historical fact that the 1918 flu pandemic was so serious that, to avoid panic, newspapers were not allowed to report it. Similarly I understand that causes of death on death certificates were unreliable, either because doctors declined to mention the flu, or the deaths were due to secondary infections which, without antibiotics, were lethal.

I also wonder whether deaths from the flu pandemic were covered up for as long as possible worldwide. In this, there is a clear parallel with the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. We know for a fact that a certain country which shall be nameless here, although everyone will recognise it, did cover up the emergence of this new virus until the excessive numbers of deaths made that impossible.

Updates

Since I started this page, events have supported the points I made about whether the size of the death toll in the 1918 flu epidemic was kept from the British people at the time.

The British people are certainly unaware of the death toll of coronavirus because only those dying in hospital have, as I write, been tested. This means that there is no documentary evidence of the cause of deaths from coronavirus outside hospital. The true figure from coronavirus must therefore be far greater that the published number. There was of course no testing for influenza in 1918, either inside or outside hospital, so there was no way to attribute deaths with certainty to that virus.

Whereas the lack of data for deaths from coronavirus is an unintended consequence of lack of testing, that looks about to change.

I read in The Daily Telegraph that doctors have been told that they need not give coronavirus as a reason for death on death certificates (presumably where there has been no test) even if they believe that to be the case. I find this worrying, bordering on disingenuous, even if it will boost the public's morale by intimating that deaths from coronavirus are fewer than they really are.

A rough estimate of deaths so far from coronavirus can be estimated by subtracting the registered deaths in a given calendar period before the coronavirus pandemic from the registered deaths in the same period during the coronavirus pandemic. Presumably this method was used to work out how the excess of 40 million deaths from the 1918 flu pandemic was calculated.

Your help requested

Please, if you know of a confirmed case of death from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the UK, do let me know.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Why the 1918 influenza pandemic was so lethal

The 1918 flu epidemic was 'such a shocker' because so many of those who perished were fit and healthy people under 40. That was because in 1918 there had been no flu in Europe for 30 years [which meant that younger people had had no chance to build flu immunity].

Prof Gupta quoted in The Sunday Telegraph 28th June 2020
arguing that the 2020 lockdown could weaken natural defences

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