These are unprecedented times for a lot of us and it may feel like we’re living through a key period of history. It has been a long time since the world faced a pandemic as widespread as the Coronavirus but it certainly isn’t the first time.

Just over a century ago the Spanish Flu ravaged Europe and the rest of the world, killing between 50 and 100 million people from 1918-1919. At the time this represented around 5% of the world’s population. On top of this, people were also dealing with WW1 and were quite numb to the concept of death which is why it wasn’t as heavily reported, as it might have been nowadays. 

How did businesses back then deal with such devastation and is there anything we can learn from them today?

Shady Business Practices

Of course medical science has come a long way since the start of the 20th century but large businesses preying on frightened consumers remains a tale as old as time. Bovril, at the time, claimed “its bodybuilding powers were . . . needed to fight the influenza epidemic”.

Those claims would never be allowed today with stricter advertising laws in place but this didn’t stop Bovril from being sold out everywhere. Now, if we could only figure out why people are stockpiling loo roll.

Workers In Danger

Safety is on the forefront of many people’s minds at the moment. Whether that’s working from home or having policies in place to ensure that workers are protected as much as they can be. This wasn’t really the case in the 1910s though. 

Since the governments at the time were suppressing news of how virulent the disease was, many companies did not act in time, helping the virus spread. Eventually, quarantines were put in place and even key roles like police and fire services were restricted in order to slow the flu’s progression. Lesson learned, protect your employees!

Pay Reviews

I’m sure a lot of workers are painfully aware of how much those in top positions are paid in comparison to the average employee. I’m not here to advocate for the redistribution of wealth… merely pointing it out. 

During the Spanish Flu pandemic businesses figured out that by curtailing the wages of management they were able to aid in relieving pressure from companies finances. Fancy that! This is being mirrored today with Premier League clubs asking their players to consider 50% pay cuts. I know, I know, it must be hard going from multi millions to only a few million pounds.

Public Health

In its report on a similar topic, the BBC shows that the Spanish Flu helped spur governments to implement public health systems which led to the likes of the NHS. Many poorer areas were hit badly by the outbreak and, as we mentioned earlier, millions died due to poor healthcare. Although less affected, wealthy members of the population were hit by the flu as well which is probably why quaratines were implemented (then and now); this wasn’t, and isn’t, just a poor people’s disease. 

We can all reflect on how valuable a resource like the NHS can be in times like this, whereas in many countries healthcare is not a given and can be extortionately expensive. When this is all over, one hopes that people will remember the efforts of public sector workers and for policymakers to take heed of just how precious they are.


As it was back in the 1910s, business finances will be impacted by the downturn in the economy. Some firms back in the day practiced tolerance of this fact and asked others to do the same. Tim Braitwaite from the Financial Times uses the example of the Sunbeam Motor Company who, at the time, admitted they couldn’t report its financial results due to its staff being absent for more than 2 months. 

The chairman is quoted saying, “shareholders would understand the delay that had occurred in the fulfilment of their expectations”, hoping for some leeway. Although it’s a fast-paced, high-demand market, maybe we should keep this in mind.

Do you think we’ve learned from our past? Although the world clearly wasn’t ready for another pandemic, in most cases, we were swifter to act and had better policies in place to deal with it.

As for businesses, we can still learn from how entrepreneurs of the past persevered and adapted.

Find out how you can adapt to a changing climate by contacting Brand Elevation and having a chat about how we can help you.