Should we really compare the Spanish flu and Covid-19?

The Graduate Institute Geneva and are co-producing a series of «pocket lectures» about the current crises: Covid-19, the virus that is changing the world.

In recent weeks, comparisons between the Spanish flu and the Covid-19 have multiplied. "Why this sudden attention to an epidemic long forgotten by historians?" asks Davide Rodogno, professor of history at the Graduate Institute Geneva (IHEID). "Probably the fear of not being prepared," he continues. For him, the history of the Spanish flu is based on the response to the pandemic or rather on the lack of response, its denial. The 1918 flu represents a model, a precedent. The question he asks is whether this model is relevant to understanding the 2020 pandemic.

The two epidemics are very different. The first one occurred at the end of the First World War and wreaked havoc among soldiers, who were still fighting. The Covid-19, on the other hand, seems to be deadly for the elderly. The results are quite different: 50 to 100 million deaths for the 1918 flu, less than 200'000 for Covid-19. One of the explanations: Europe was coming out of the deadliest war in history after 4 years; it is as if today we were observing the ravages of the coronavirus on the ruined Syria.

The consequences, however, will be similar: closure of schools and churches, closure of borders to protect oneself from a virus that knows no borders, compulsory wearing of masks and use of the virus to scapegoat foreign populations, rise of racism and outbreak of conspiracy theories.

In this new episode of the "Pocket lectures" co-produced by the IHEID and, Davide Rodogno goes further. He questions the context of globalization, in 2020 and a century earlier, our relationship to death, the terminology of war to talk about a virus that, in 2020, has shattered our certainties. In 1918, these certainties did not exist. People died of pneumonia, people died in childbirth. Exciting lines of thought, articulated by a historian specializing in conflicts, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

Davide Rodogno is professor, international history at the Graduate Institute Geneva. He's director, executive certificate advocacy in international affairs. He's also faculty associate, centre on conflict, development and peace building.