The first influenza pandemic of the 21st century "swine flu" resulted in up to 395 000 deaths.

COVID-19 pandemic not a case of history repeating itself

AAP FactCheck April 9, 2020

The Statement

With the death toll from COVID-19 rising and fears of the havoc it may wreak on the global economy, a social media post suggests the pandemic is a case of history repeating itself.

A Facebook post claims COVID-19 is the latest in a once-every-100-years  pattern of pandemics. A graphic comprises four consecutive images of deadly epidemics, each purportedly a century apart. The images indicate the pandemics and years in which they occurred: 1720 – Plague; 1820 – Cholera; 1920 – Spanish Flu; 2020 – Coronavirus. A note at the bottom of the images states: “It seems that history repeats itself every 100 years”.

The post has been viewed more than 2.5 million times and shared more than 26,000 times.

A Facebook post from March 25, 2020
 A Facebook post claims the COVID-19 crisis is the latest in a 100-year pattern of pandemics. 

The Analysis

The earliest entry in the Facebook post is 1720, which could refer to the Great Plague of Marseille. The plague broke out in the southern French port city in 1720, after arriving via a trading ship.

Unknown to those on board the ship, it carried a bacteria that causes plague, according to University of Texas at San Antonio assistant professor Cindy Ermus, who is completing a book on the Marseille plague.

“The Great Plague of Provence, or Great Plague of Marseille, brought southern France to its knees, and led much of the rest of the world to impose strict measures to prevent its spread,” Ermus says in an article in The Washington Post.

The epidemic claimed as many as 126,000 lives in the region of Provence, Ermus says. A website for the city of Marseille estimates the toll was 100,000 based on information from the Historical Federation of Provence and National Institute for Demographic Studies.

Regarding the 1820 entry, there were six worldwide cholera pandemics between 1817 and 1923, according to the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet.

The first known cholera pandemic, from 1817-1823, originated in the Ganges River delta in India, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News feature exploring cholera’s deadly pandemics. The disease broke out near Calcutta and spread through the rest of the country before it spread to Southeast Asia, central Asia, the Middle East, eastern Africa, and the Mediterranean coast. The death toll from the outbreak is not known, but in 1820, 100,000 people died on the Indonesian island of Java alone.

Regarding the post’s 1920 entry, the Spanish flu was  between 1918-19, according to The Lancet, World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The influenza pandemic was the most severe in recent history, the CDC said. It was estimated about 500 million people or one third of the world’s population became infected with the virus. The number of deaths has been estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.

The last entry in the post’s graphic, 2020, refers to the current coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) says it was first informed on December 31, 2019 of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China.

The impact of what has become known as COVID-19 (previously known as 2019 novel coronavirus) has unfolded throughout 2020. As of April 9, WHO reported more than 1.3 million people worldwide had been infected with COVID-19 with a death toll of 79,385.

The post concludes with the statement: ”It seems that history repeats itself every 100 years’. In the 20th century alone there were three influenza pandemics, according to WHO – two of which were not included in the post.

In 1957-1958 there was the “Asian Flu” and in 1968, the “Hong Kong Flu”. They were estimated to have caused between one to four million deaths each, according to WHO. The first influenza pandemic of the 21st century H1NI is also not mentioned. It is estimated that the 2009 A(H1NI) “swine flu” pandemic caused between 105 000 and 395 000 deaths.

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the Facebook post to be false. While not all the dates of pandemics match those recorded by the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Lancet, the post’s list is arbitrary. It omits other pandemics during the 20th century and the 2009 A(H1NI) “swine flu” pandemic, which negates the claim that history repeats itself every 100 years.

False – The implications of the content are factually inaccurate.

* AAP FactCheck is accredited by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, which promotes best practice through a stringent and transparent Code of Principles.

All information, text and images included on the AAP Websites is for personal use only and may not be re-written, copied, re-sold or re-distributed, framed, linked, shared onto social media or otherwise used whether for compensation of any kind or not, unless you have the prior written permission of AAP. For more information, please refer to our standard terms and conditions.