It was the deadliest epidemic in human history. It circled the globe in a few months, killing more than 50 million people. Some cities and towns saw thousands perish in a few short weeks. In some remote villages, more than half the population died. The epidemic emerged out of nowhere, sickened and killed millions, then disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Shocking as it may seem, this horrifyingly deadly epidemic occurred not in the Middle Ages, not in the time of the waves of bubonic plague that devastated Europe centuries ago, but barely a century ago.
The Spanish flu epidemic that traversed the globe from September 1918 through March 1919 left an estimated 50 million dead. If this figure is accurate, then as many died in this pandemic as in the worst outbreaks of bubonic plague in previous centuries.
Epidemiologists estimate that if a similar killer-flu virus emerged today, modern travel would allow it to spread worldwide in four days rather than the four months it took in 1918. The recent rapid spread of COVID-19 bears this out. By some estimates, 100 to 200 million could die in a similar pandemic today!
Scientists are still trying to unravel the secrets of that epidemic. How could an influenza virus—known primarily for its ability to produce aches, fevers and coughs—turn so deadly?
In recent years researchers have begun to see that the world of microorganisms is far more diverse—and unstable—than they had thought. As new technologies have enabled scientists to unveil and study the genetic makeup of living things, some of their discoveries are increasingly disconcerting.
The incredible variety and diversity of life we see around us is mirrored in the microscopic world—also all around us, but largely unseen and unnoticed. Just as people and animals reproduce and pass on their diverse genetic traits to their offspring, so do the other tiny creatures all around us.
And occasionally mutations happen. With viruses, that usually means decreased virulence. But in some cases the new form is more harmful. Scientists believe this is what happened in 1918. Apparently a strain of flu mutated and crossed from animals to people. That strain then spread around the world in the mass movement of soldiers and civilians during the throes and aftermath of World War I.
Somewhere along the way the virus apparently mutated further. Its genetic makeup differed so greatly from other flu strains that many people had no natural immunity and thus were defenseless. The mutated virus claimed millions of victims before it ran its course and apparently disappeared.
This crossover from animals to people is not without precedent. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and Ebola likewise crossed from animals to human beings, and our lack of any natural resistance is why these viruses have killed so many.
Some researchers think the flu virus of 1918 first migrated from birds to pigs before it spread to human beings—and thus we hear of the periodic desperate slaughter of chickens, ducks and geese in some Asian countries when a different flu strain jumps from these domesticated birds to people.
And while health officials rightly worry about the ongoing devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS (which still kills close to a million people annually) and occasional deadly outbreaks of Ebola or something similar, their real worry is another killer flu pandemic. This is why they have been so concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Could a global catastrophe like the 1918 flu outbreak happen again? At the moment, it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic will not prove as deadly as first thought. But it has had a terrible global impact in various other ways. And much remains unknown. For example, it’s too early to tell whether it will largely go dormant in the northern hemisphere’s warmer summer months, only to reemerge with a vengeance in colder weather as did the 1918 variety, when it took even more lives than in its first wave.
Since widespread vaccine use is yet a ways off, there is still plenty of concern. The full impact of the reeling global economy is yet to be seen, and we have far to go before the world returns to some semblance of normality.
The media have been full of breathless reporting on this current pandemic, but something has been noticeably missing. That’s any kind of biblical perspective on this pandemic and its effect on the world—not to mention its effect on you.
We encourage you to read the articles in this issue to discover what the Bible has to say about such epidemics and their effect on humanity—as well as the prophetic reality of far worse epidemics to come.
With much of the world shut down and people told to stay in their homes, this is a good time for us to think—to consider where we are spiritually, to consider what God wants and expects us to do, to make choices we may have put off far too long.
God’s Word indeed has much to say to us in times like this! But keep in mind that beyond the terrible times prophesied to come awaits the long-promised world of tomorrow. To discover more about this magnificent age to come, be sure to download or request our free study guide The Gospel of the Kingdom. And in the meantime, be sure to regularly check our website ucg.org/tags/coronavirus for more updates. You need this biblical perspective!