Comparing COVID-19 to previous pandemics quickly became something that grabbed my attention.

With loads and loads of us self-isolating and social distancing, l wanted to know more about it in a broader context.

Essentially, just how does the coronavirus outbreak compare to say Ebola in 2014 or H1N1 (Swine Flu) in 2009?

Well, it’s enlightening.

By reading this post you’ll leave appreciating more about Comparing COVID-19: How does the coronavirus the compare to past pandemics?

And why not show your support by donating to the COVID-19 relief efforts?

It’s in all our interests to do so.

Intro Clarifying COVID-19

Firstly, l want to underline this post isn’t a substitute for official news sources, nor details from the WHO or CDC.

My intention here isn’t to incite fear, but to inform.

By comparing the COVID-19 to not only pandemics and other large-scale outbreaks or epidemics which, interestingly, includes Ebola.

More on that later.

If you want a source for coping with COVID-19, read my other post on that here.

the best coronavirus treatment right now is social distancing

Otherwise, COVID-19 – named because it first caught attention in December 2019 in Wuhan, China – officially became a pandemic on March 11th, 2020 by the WHO.

What is a pandemic?

A disease, a virus which can transfer between people, beyond country borders, and so continuously

COVID-19 itself is part of a family of viruses that are common in people and various animals, particularly other mammals.

So why is COVID-19 so severe?

Well, surprisingly, or not, it’s complicated.

Because this coronavirus strain originated in animals, before then being transferred to humans. And this means we have no pre-existing immunisation to it, unlike other coronavirus strains.

That is why it is so easily able to transfer between humans across borders or boundaries. As of writing, it is present in 150+ countries, with Africa, a continent that had broadly avoided, beginning to report cases too.

But as the CDC emphasises, this is the first pandemic caused by a new coronavirus.Which also addresses the question of if: ‘is coronavirus new?’

Variations in interpretations will exist, but for comparing COVID-19 here, according to the CDC, WHO and epidemiological experts, there have been 4 pandemics from novel viruses.

However, they have all related to influenza.So, this gives an idea of coronavirus vs flu.

That said, the same principles can be applied and for this post, l will still be comparing COVID-19 to other outbreaks, starting with the most recent.

1. Ebola – 2014 to 2016

Who remembers Ebola?

I certainly do. And at the time, it initially seemed like a very significant threat.

Beginning in late-2013 with detection in Guinea, the first outbreak actually occurred in March 2014, and when it became global, public knowledge.

By the time the disease and outbreak were contained, and ultimately, contained by March 2016, 2 years later, data stood at:

  • Global cases: 28,000+
  • Global deaths: 11,000+
  • Number of countries: 10
  • Most affected: children
  • Death rate: 50% – meaning of those who got sick, ½ die
coronavirus in the USA is not comparable to Ebola

What was tougher was the fact there was no effective or at least ideal treatment available. Supportive care, like IV fluids or oral hygiene, was the best options.

And despite the time elapsed, no vaccine was available either.

And Comparing COVID-19?

However, as severe as Ebola was, it was less contagious than when comparing COVID-19 to it.

It was spread many via fluids, like sweat or blood which is, well, a damn site harder to encounter than someone merely coughing or sneezing.

Therefore, interestingly (see said l would mention it), Ebola was never categorised as a pandemic.

It became a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)what the WHO had called COVID-19 before March 11th, 2020.

But it didn’t go further with Ebola.

So, while it cruelly infected 10 countries in West Africa, much of the globe was fortunate enough never to encounter it, and the Ebola virus eventually dissipated away.

2. H1N1 (Swine Flu) – 2009

Comparing COVID-19 to H1N1 is more accurate since both are pandemics.

When H1N1 outbroke, in January 2009 people held no immunity to it, much like COVID-19. It was a new strain of flu with no vaccine and there was the potential for drastic effects.

I was at school, 16 years old when it first appeared, and l remember reading about it everywhere. It was the first health-crisis, international issue l remember and it made me curious to learn about how the international community cooperated or didn’t, in some cases.

In some ways, it was a factor that drove me to study population studies, which cover things like health and migration. Two important factors in pandemics.

In terms of final statistics:

  • Global cases: 24% of the globe or 1.6 billion people (population was 6.8 billion in 2009)
  • Global deaths: 284,000 (estimates also suggest 500,000+)
  • Number of countries: 60
  • Most affected: children (almost half, 47% developed symptoms)
  • Death rate: 0.02%

The pandemic was officially over in August 2010. As the data shows, while a horrendous amount of people died, it was near nothing relative to the number of people who got sick.


Because early on, we had antivirals – a common form of medicine to combat influenza. And what’s more, a vaccine was available within 11 months of the outbreak, enabling this virus to be overcome.

And comparing COVID-19?

Well, this is where similarities are worrisome.

COVID-19 effectively combines the severity of Ebola with the riskiness of H1N1. What l mean is that officials fear coronavirus could extend into the global deaths of H1N1, primarily because we don’t have the defences as we had with H1N1.

This means there could be a higher death rate, like Ebola, especially because of how easily COVID-19 can be transmitted.

And it explains significantly, why governments are responding as dramatically as they are.

3. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) – 2002-04

Comparing the coronavirus outbreak to SARS is the closest, in terms of the type of virus and how they infected populations.

They are both coronaviruses.

Both are respiratory diseases.

SARS originated in late-2002, curiously being detected out of China once again. It held similar symptoms with fever, coughs or body aches.

But when it comes to data:

  • Global cases: 8000+
  • Global deaths: 774
  • Number of countries: 29
  • Most affected: elderly (55% death rate)
  • Death rate: 0.15 unless you were over 55-60 years old where it increased

It quickly becomes clear, that although this was a similar strain, SARS held near nowhere as much weight as COVID-19.

Already, as of March 18th, 2020 COVID-19 global deaths have surpassed the global cases of SARS.

If anything put the severity of this coronavirus pandemic in context for me, it was this.

Comparing COVID-19 to SARS

So what of coronavirus vs sars?

It shows how the latter simply didn’t have the longevity to persist and threaten most people.

And this means COVID-19 has implications far beyond infections; the economic repercussions, social impacts from self-isolation, are far more unknown than SARS.

  • But the use of contact tracing was a highly effective weapon for SARS and essentially what we are doing now: avoiding contact.
  • But this contradicts with another option – herd immunity. The idea that enough people may have to become infected to become immune.

These are controversial, life-determining and contrasting responses which could produce very different effects.

It’s impossible to know the best one, which is why it is so challenging for decisionmakers.But the best thing you can do is to donate to the COVID-19 relief efforts and express your support.

4. HIV & AIDS – 1981 to present

I doubt l really need to provide a detailed outline to HIV and AIDS.

Originating from chimpanzees in the 1960s and becoming globally acknowledged in 1981, this disease remains one of the deadliest to many people.

HIV is a very similar but also drastically different pandemic to the coronavirus outbreak

Now, you might wonder why it is listed next to the coronavirus outbreak?

Because, while it didn’t have the same reach or rate of spread as the respiratory examples here, it continues to be an ongoing epidemic, affecting millions:

  • Global cases: 75-80 million (since 1960)
  • Global deaths: 39 million (as of 2020)
  • Number of countries: 120+ (hard to tell as many countries didn’t exist yet)
  • Most affected: younger age groups since they are the most sexually active
  • Death rate: this has fallen from a high of 16% to <3% in 2015
Comparing COVID-19

So, again putting COVID-19 into context.

The most significant aspect when comparing COVID-19 to HIV is its transmission.

It is not nearly as easy to transmit between people, making its overall threat much lower. Sadly, it was less-educated communities which experienced the worst effects.

But as time progresses, more cures are being produced, with the second-ever HIV patient treated as of March 2020.

This, once more, emphasises the gravity surrounding the coronavirus.  But equally, given enough attention, enough time, enough resources, we will be able to overcome it with a coronavirus treatment. 

5. 1918 Influenza (Spanish Flu) – 1918 to 1919

This influenza was the worst flu, the worst pandemic we have any clear memory or records of.

Another case of coronavirus vs flu. 

Beginning in March 1918, any concept or understanding of a pandemic strain of the flu was unknown. This was because we didn’t know viruses caused disease, plus we didn’t have any form of medication to prevent or treat it.

That’s right, we had no vaccines or even antibiotics.

And to top it off, WWI was ongoing, making attentions very diverted. But more dangerously, the primary way the virus was transmitted as soldiers fought across the globe.The case of the Spanish Flu was overwhelming much like the coronavirus in the US has been. 

Also, the state of sanitation and housing standards were abysmal, meaning that the virus could thrive.

And thrive it did, looking at the, albeit very disputed data:

  • Global cases: 500 million (world population was 1.8 billion in 1918)
  • Global deaths: estimates range from 17 to 100 million  
  • Number of countries: 120+ (hard to tell as many countries didn’t exist yet)
  • Most affected: healthy adults 20 to 40 years old
  • Death rate: ~2% (varies a lot due to death estimates)
And Comparing COVID-19?

The point is that when comparing COVID-19, the 1918 Flu is, well, nearly incomparable.

History has taught us, that we must be overcautious with crises like these because if we are not, we could well witness something like this again.It also highlights how in many ways, the coronavirus outbreak is quite new.

But comparisons can only go so far.

Because modern medicine has progressed in ways in the past 100 years, we can’t even comprehend. Our global population has multiplied 4.5x from 1.8 to nearly 8 billion people in a mere 100 years.

We have the WHO, an unprecedented period of world peace and new forms of technology that can combat COVID-19.

See, Snapchat is directly helping to stem the coronavirus.


Again, l want to reiterate.

Comparing COVID-19: How does the coronavirus compare to past pandemics is not a post to incite fear, but to inform.

I want it to help illustrate why COVID-19 needs to be taken seriously. But crucially, if you know or see anyone who isn’t treating it as so, to help them understand why they to properly listen to health officials and policymakers.

Again, consider donating to COVID-19 relief efforts to show your support. 

We’re all in it together. 

Professionals and researchers are working as diligently as ever, to develop a coronavirus treatment. To develop a coronavirus cure. 

Plus, while l was interested in comparing COVID-19 to past pandemics, comparing can only go so far due to how much things change with time.  

But there is always something we can learn from history.

Interested in more? Read this post.

Otherwise, you know the drill:

  1. Wash your hands
  2. Maintain 1m to 2m distance from others
  3. Self-isolate
  4. If you feel unwell quarantine yourself (only contact medics if you sense symptoms worsening)

And finally, don’t panic buy.

There will not be a shortage of supplies and we should aim to be supportive to everyone, especially those most vulnerable.

This isn’t the apocalypse.  You won’t lose out on any toilet paper.We will overcome the coronavirus outbreak together. 

Stay well.


  • Pyotr Kurzin is the founder of My Global Muse, a space to talk about travel, sustainability, wellbeing and more. He works in climate change and humanitarian affairs, while loves to travel, dive, learn and more in his free time.

Pyotr Kurzin

Pyotr Kurzin is the founder of My Global Muse, a space to talk about travel, sustainability, wellbeing and more. He works in climate change and humanitarian affairs, while loves to travel, dive, learn and more in his free time.


Jenny · 12 April 2020 at 14:05

This Was a helpful read today, really good information, easy to understand and digest. Thank you. Be safe.

Sula · 8 April 2020 at 20:28

Very informative. I like the comparisons, it really does help put this in perspective.

    Pyotr Kurzin · 9 April 2020 at 18:49

    Much obliged, l am glad it helps to explain it.

Renee Rose · 23 March 2020 at 16:55

Very interesting post! I really appreciate your inclusion of comparisons with other pandemics. It really put things into perspective. Thanks again for the post!

Sandra Ans · 23 March 2020 at 09:04

Thank you for this post! You answered to many my questions!

World In Eyes · 21 March 2020 at 16:09

Great post with realistic comparison of COVID-19, and safety measures.

    Pyotr Kurzin · 22 March 2020 at 04:07

    Thanks, glad you took something away

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