How deadly has Covid-19 been compared to the United States’ major wars?

There have been as many plaques as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise. – Albert Camus, The Plaque, 1947 

June 9, 2021

Updated June 11, 2021

By Stephen Gowans

The quote above from Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague, implicitly categorizes plagues and wars as congeneric events—what I’ll call death events.

Five great wars in US history have produced major US fatalities. The deadliest was the Civil War, which claimed 620,000 lives, more than perished in WWI, WWII, Korea, or Vietnam.

How do these wars compare to the Covid-19 pandemic?

In absolute number of deaths, the pandemic has been more deadly in the United States than four of the five great wars, with only the Civil War producing more deaths. More have died to June 7 (almost 600,000, with more deaths to follow) than died in WWII (418,500).

But comparing absolute numbers presents a problem. The longer a death event lasts, the greater the opportunity for fatalities to accumulate. In order to compare like to like, we need to place fatalities on a common scale. One way is to look at the average number of deaths per day over a death event’s course.

When death events are examined this way, the pandemic reveals itself to be more deadly than the great wars. Over 1,100 US citizens have died daily, on average, from Covid-19, from 19 January 2020, the day the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in the United States, to 7 June 2021. The deadliest war, the Civil War, at 427 deaths per day on average, is a distant second.

Covid-19 vs. war deaths, United States
 DeathsDaysDeaths per day, (avg.)
Civil War620,0001,451427
*Jan 19, ’20 – June 7, ’21

And while US politicians and journalists speak as if the pandemic is all but over in their country (and many US citizens act as if this is true), the numbers suggest the celebration is premature. The average number of Covid-19 deaths per day from June 1 to June 7 was 324, according to Our World in Data, greater than the average daily number of US fatalities in WWII. This means that US citizens are dying today from Covid-19 at a greater daily rate than US soldiers perished in combat every day from late 1941 to late summer 1945.

Yet, no matter how deadly the current pandemic has proved to be, there was one more deadly: the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. That pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 US citizens, or 1,232 per day on average, somewhat higher than the daily number killed to date by the novel coronavirus.

Covid-19 vs. 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, United States
 DeathsDaysDeaths per day, (avg.)
Influenza pandemic 1918-1919675,0005481,232
*Jan 19, ’20 – June 7, ’21

The rough parity in deaths between the two pandemics is misleading. The US population was much smaller in 1918. Adjusting for population growth, the influenza pandemic was much more deadly, carrying away a greater percentage of the population than Covid-19 has. How do the various death events compare if historical differences in population size are taken into account?

Looking at fatalities per million, the Civil War is by far the deadliest event in US history*, both in the cumulative number of deaths and the average number of deaths per day. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 comes second, while the Covid-19 pandemic comes a distant third. The coronavirus pestilence and the twentieth century wars comprise a class of their own, much less deadly than the Civil War and the 1918-1919 influenza. Even so, compared to the wars of the last century, the current pandemic is more deadly, even controlling for population growth.

Pandemic vs. war deaths, United States, per million
 DeathsDaysDeaths per day, (avg.)
Civil War19,7261,45113.6
Influenza pandemic 1918-19196,54154811.9
*Jan 19, ’20 – June 7, ’21

What these findings reveal is that the Covid-19 pandemic is a major death event. More US citizens have perished in the pandemic to date than in any of the four major twentieth century wars, controlling for the number of days the death event lasted and population size.

They also show that notwithstanding the unduly sanguine pronouncements of the pandemic’s imminent end in the United States, the rate of mortality continues to be high relative to the major wars of the last century. Only by redefining “almost over” to mean a death rate better than abysmal but still higher than WWII—and no better than that of the world as a whole, as the chart below shows—can the pandemic be said to be nearly over. If deaths per million in the United States have reached a point where this is true, then the pandemic can also be said to be nearly over in the world as a whole, since deaths per million globally are at the same level. But who believes that on a world scale, the pandemic’s demise is imminent?

The figures also confirm, for the Covid-19 pandemic, the observation implicit in Camus’s words, namely, that plagues and wars are, in their deadliness, of the same sort.

A caveat: The United States is an anomaly, and the findings above cannot be considered as representative of the world in toto.

First, US fatalities in major wars have been very low by comparison with other belligerents, and have comprised but a very tiny fraction of total, word-wide, deaths.  

Second, US authorities have exhibited considerable ineptitude in meeting the challenge of the pandemic. Favoring a pharmaceutical solution (which offers a cornucopia of profits to the biopharma industry) over a zero-Covid public health approach (which, through business closures, would have severely attenuated profits in the larger business community temporarily but whose efficacy was demonstrated early on by the Communist-led Chinese government), deaths accumulated to a level commensurate with what would be expected from a failed state. The conclusion is that capitalism is a comorbidity–a condition whose presence amplifies the deadly effects of the pandemic.

Only now, nearly a year and a half after Washington should have taken swift and decisive action to smother the infant pandemic in its cradle, is the roll out of vaccines starting to have an effect. This is hardly a consolation for the loved ones of the nearly 600,000 US citizens whose deaths could have been prevented.

Embarrassed by its abject failure to contain the pandemic, especially in light of Communist successes in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea, Washington has redefined success; it now means the fruition of its strategy, namely, the mass uptake of vaccines, but this metric bears little relation to the question of whether the virus continues to scythe through the population, which it does, as this analysis has shown.

And it’s doubtful that Washington’s pharmaceuticalization strategy will succeed. No pathogen has ever been eliminated by vaccination alone, and nor does it seem likely that Washington is about to set a precedent, given the realities of vaccine hesitancy, the expectation that it will be two or more years before low income countries are fully vaccinated, and the expected continued emergence of variants—some of which may prove resistant to current vaccines.

For these reasons—the US anomalies of low war fatalities and high Covid-19 deaths—US figures cannot be taken as indicative of what is true of the world as a whole. In a follow-up post, I’ll examine the question globally, comparing the death event of Covid-19 with the death events of WWI and WWII.

A final caution. Covid-19 has likely been deadlier than the official numbers indicate. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “Epidemiologists believe [the official] numbers represent only a portion of the pandemic’s true toll, due in part to missed Covid-19 deaths and collateral damage from issues like healthcare disruptions. In the U.S., for example, experts believe limited test availability hampered the ability to correctly identify many Covid-19 deaths early in the pandemic.” (Covid-19 Deaths This Year Have Already Eclipsed 2020’s Toll, June 10, 2021)

*In terms of absolute number of deaths, the genocide of the Amerindians and the slave trade, the foundations of US capitalism, almost certainly preponderate the death events examined here.