SARS to Smallpox: Where Coronavirus stands on the list of history’s worst pandemics


Nowadays, the only thing on most people’s minds is the Coronavirus, and every day more terrible news about the disease emerges, and as the death numbers continue to rise it’s hard to imagine that this can get any worse, but how does Coronavirus actually compare to previous pandemics? Here is information on pandemics of the past.


Smallpox is a flu-like disease that was responsible for anywhere from 300-500 million deaths in the 20th century. Though eradicated in the 1980s by an extensive vaccine campaign, the side effects of that vaccine mean that it is not always administered in low-risk areas. One of the reasons smallpox was so deadly was that it was, like coronavirus, an airborne disease, meaning any direct contact with the infected or anything they touched could lead to another person contracting the disease. This led to exponential infection rates, particularly in impoverished regions, where the people did not fully understand the disease or how it spread. The exponential growth rate also made it hard to predict the spread of either disease. Mrs. Jane O’Hara states that “Coronavirus spread very rapidly, to huge segments of populations and in a very short time. There is no model of an event of this magnitude, and in many ways, it has become Health Organization (WHO) to actually eradicate the disease.” 

Another major factor that made Smallpox so deadly was how fast it spread. Seventh grade Edison Intermediate School (EIS) science teacher David Parke explained, “Smallpox can spread 10 times faster than Coronavirus. This made many quarantine measures ineffective.” 

Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu was a strain of influenza that infected half a billion people worldwide Stephen Friedman explained, “This influenza virus was so different from previous influenza viruses that no one was immune to it.  Again, everyone could get it; it spread from one person to another in a few days and quickly affected millions of people. Many of these people died.” 

Lack of pre-existing immunity and fast transmission, furthered by the lack of a working flu vaccine, caused the Spanish Flu to be one of the worst pandemics of the 20th century, and now all three are still true with Coronavirus. However, this isn’t to suggest that Coronavirus will be as bad as the Spanish Flu, or even come close to the number of deaths, the first wave of the Spanish Flu occurred during WWI, where transmission in the disease ridding trenches of the western fronts would be easy, and troops massed in bases all over Europe, allowing the virus to quickly spread. Another major factor that made the disease much more deadly was that it could easily target young adults, a group typically more resilient to diseases. Dr. Mark Schleiss explained, “The 1918 pandemic strain of influenza was new and novel for most people under the age of 40 or 50, but that’s where the death rate really was high that’s different than the usual flu.”


SARS was another respiratory disease that also came out of China. SARS actually had a higher death rate than COVID-19 and spread the same way. The reason COVID-19 has killed more people and spread further is that governments around the world collaborated to stop SARS, acknowledging how bad it was. Present day, many leaders denied COVID-19 being a crisis until it was too late. However, those are not the only reasons. According to Dr. Meredith Goodwin, “Despite the fact that Coronavirus and SARS are similar in structure, mortality, and transmission, the societal response to each differed to the point where one was easily contained, and the other has caused a global pandemic. Even worse, most people with Coronavirus are unaware they have it, meaning it can spread throughout communities, and the globalized economy, not as present in 2003 when the last recorded outbreak of SARS occurred, has also aided Coronavirus is spreading like fire across the world.”