Economic Impact of Spanish Flu on Global Economy

It is almost a year since COVID19 was declared as a Pandemic by WHO. We now have managed to prepare its vaccine, but there seems to be no end in sight yet. This pandemic is still wreaking havoc across the world. We are now witnessing the “third wave” of infection across many major countries.

One of the similarities between COVID19 and Spanish Flu (which is considered as the deadliest pandemic in our recent 2 centuries) is – Spanish Flu also had three waves of mutated virus strains. Death toll of Spanish flu is estimated to be 20-50 million. The death toll of Covid19, is close to 2.75 million, which is just 10% of Spanish flu’s death toll. So, it is quite imperative to know more about Spanish flu and its social & economic Impact. This understanding will act as a baseline for analysing the life-time impact of the ongoing COVID19 pandemic.

Spanish Flu


1918-1919 (lasted for 2 years)

Originated in

Still unknown; France, China, Britain and US were potential birthplace of the virus.

Originated From

It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin.

First case

Military Base in Kansas, US (March 1918).

Mutation or reassortment Happened?


During Sep-Nov 1918 (Second waves). Second wave of Pandemic was more deadly that the first wave as virus had mutated to stronger form.

There was a third wave of Pandemic too during Jan-Jun 1919. Though, it was lesser severe than the second waves but more severe than the first wave of the pandemic.

Why it was named Spanish Flu?

It was known as the Spanish flu because it was a common perception among many countries during those time that it had been originated in Spain.

Some studies say that It was named Spanish flu because Spain was neutral in World War-I (1914-1918). So, Spain could report on the severity of the pandemic, but countries fighting the world war were suppressing reports on how the disease affected their citizens.

Newspapers in Spain were therefore free to report the epidemic’s actual effects, e.g. the illness of King Alfonso XIII, and these liberal reporting about the epidemic created a false impression of Spain as a hard-hit nation from the Pandemic.

How many people got affected?

At its peak, Spanish flu affected around 500 million population (about 1/3rd of world’s population).

Up to 50 million people died worldwide (about 2.7% of world’s population). Out of which 675000 people in US died. Fatality rate was close to 2-5% (Fatality rate of seasonal influenza is usually 0.1%).

The Spanish flu epidemic in Singapore, occurred in 2 waves, June–July, and October–November, and resulted in more than 2,870 deaths (mortality rate was close to 4-5%). The excess mortality rate was higher than that for industrialized nations in the Northern Hemisphere but lower than that for the less industrialized countries in Asia and Africa.

One of the reasons of its faster transmission was world war-I. Whole world was in the middle of the war, so it was easier for soldiers to spread the virus faster (though not deliberately). People were living in crowed and unhygienic condition too.

Higher fatality rate of this Pandemic could be due to following reasons:

  1. Hospitals were dealing with mass casualties and injuries from the world war-I, and many healthcare professionals were with the troops, leaving medical students/trainees to take care of the Pandemic patients.
  2. Medicinal Research was not that advanced what we find it today. So, quick vaccine development could not be done.
  3. At that time, some section of medical professionals was recommending up to 30 grams of aspirin daily, which as we now know is toxic — doses above 4gms are unsafe. Many experts believe that a significant portion of the deaths from the Spanish flu were caused by aspirin poisoning.
  1. Communication system across the world was not that advanced what we find it today. It resulted in hindrance in raising awareness among public about the Pandemic.

Mortality rate across different countries

  • US (0.7 million) and Japan (0.5 million) were top two nations in terms of number of casualties.
  • Australia and Latin America were least impacted territories in terms of number of casualties as well as % mortality rate.
  • Africa and India were most impacted countries in terms of % mortality rate.

End of Pandemic

Virus mutated extremely rapidly to a less lethal strain. This is quite common with influenza viruses: there is a tendency for pathogenic viruses to become less lethal with time, as the hosts of more dangerous strains tend to die out.

Long Term Societal Impact of the Pandemic

Reduced educational attainment and increased rates of physical disability

Economic impact of the Pandemic

Most of the analysis concluded that the economic effects of the 1918 pandemic were short-term.

Many businesses, especially those in the services industry, suffered a double-digit revenue loss. businesses related to health care products experienced an increase in revenues.

Some academic research suggests that the 1918 pandemic caused a shortage of labour that resulted in higher wages (at least temporarily) for workers, though this benefit didn’t outweigh the costs from the loss of life and overall economic activity.

Research also suggests that the 1918 influenza caused adverse effect on individuals in utero during the pandemic. As we all know, an efficient labour-pool is prerequisite for the economic activities. That was the reason that it had some severe implications for economic activity occurring decades after the pandemic.


The above details about Spanish flu has been taken from my book “The Economic Cost of 2020 Pandemic” (Available on Amazon).


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Published by Amit


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