ONE YEAR OF COVID-19: A year on from SA's first coronavirus case, here's how it compares to Spanish flu

As SA reflects on a year of heartache and mourning, here's a look at how the coronavirus has affected the world in comparison to another virus — the 1918 Influenza, more commonly known as the Spanish flu

05 March 2021 - 04:54
By Sunday Times
Here's a look at the impact Covid-19 has had, a year after it was first detected in SA.
Image: 123RF/Kateryna Kon Here's a look at the impact Covid-19 has had, a year after it was first detected in SA.

March 5 2021 marks exactly a year since the first coronavirus case was reported in SA. The patient was a 38-year-old male who had travelled to Italy with his wife as part of a group of 10.

Since then, the country has clocked 1,517,666 confirmed cases and 50,462 deaths.

As the country reflects on the year-mark and mourns the deaths of thousands from the deadly virus, here's a look at how the virus has affected the world in comparison to another deadlier virus — the 1918 Influenza, more commonly known as the “Spanish flu”. 



While the origin of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which causes Covid-19, has been highly politicised, it is believed to have first emerged in December 2019 at a wet market in Wuhan, China.

Authorities shut down the market in the city the next day, after discovering some patients were vendors or dealers.

While Chinese authorities were the first to alert the World Health Organisation (WHO) of the 27 cases of “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan on December 31, some have since disputed that this is where the virus originated but instead insist it originated in another country and was imported into China. A delegation from WHO has since been dispatched to investigate the origins of the deadly virus.

In little over a year, the virus has infected more than 100 million people worldwide and claimed more than 2 million lives. In SA, the first case emerged on March 5 and by the end of June 2020, more than a 120,000 cases were recorded.

Spanish flu

The 1918 influenza, dubbed the “Spanish flu”, in contrast, is believed to have infected about half a billion people from 1918-1920, a third of the world's population, and claimed about 50-100 million lives.

The pandemic got its unsavoury name from the fact that Spain, which was neutral during World War 1 and had an uncensored press, was the first to report on it. It was at its deadliest between 1918-1919 before subsiding in the 1920s.

The virus hit SA in September 1918 and according to Emeritus Professor Howard Phillips of the University of Cape Town, seemingly arrived on two ships, the Jaroslav and the Veronej, which docked in Cape Town.

The Spanish flu is widely considered the most severe pandemic in recent history.



The coronavirus pandemic has infected 110 million people and claimed 2.43 million lives. The worst-hit countries so far are the US, India, Brazil, Russia, UK, France, Spain, Italy, Turkey and Germany.

The same countries, bar Turkey and including Mexico, have also recorded the highest death rates so far. In SA, 1,517,666 cases have been recorded thus far, with 50,462 deaths.

The worst-hit province is Gauteng, followed by KZN, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and then Free State.

SA ranks in the top 20 countries with the highest infections. It also has the highest number of cases in Africa.

Spanish flu

The 1918 Influenza pandemic is estimated to have infected 500 million people and claimed about 50 million lives. It is believed that Africa and Asia were the worst-hit continents. In Asia, India recorded the highest death toll, while in Africa, SA was among those worst affected by the end of the second wave.

It remains unclear how many South Africans contracted the virus and how many died but according to JSTOR, between 124,000-248,000 citizens lost their lives during the second wave. It is, however, estimated that up to 500,000 people were dead within a few weeks of the virus's arrival in the country. SA was fifth hardest hit by the virus worldwide.



The Covid-19 pandemic rages on, more than a year since it first emerged. Many vaccines have been developed worldwide and a number of countries have started to inoculate their citizens.

Experts around the world, and SA, have warned of a third wave of the virus later on in the year. It remains unclear if and when Covid-19 will end, but experts say reaching “herd immunity” may be the key to slowing or ending the outbreak.

Spanish flu

While the influenza never really ended, according to the Washington Post, it subsided in the 1920s when those who had contracted it developed immunity.

It's further reported that this particular strand didn't just disappear but rather mutated and eventually morphed into another seasonal flu.

* Sources: The Conversation, Washington Post, Sunday Times, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Worldometer, JSTOR, Reuters, NICD and WHO.