How Did we ever survive the Hong Kong Flu?

The NY Post had a story of life during the pandemic; the 1968-69 Hong Kong Flu Pandemic.  That was one that featured over 100,000 deaths in the US, but if you check the history books, there doesn’t seem to be much about it.  It was a thing, and public health was concerned, but there was nothing like the mindless hysteria that swept across the US and the world this year for a very similar virus.  Of course historically, 1968 and 1969 were extremely busy years.  The Prague Spring, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the White Album was released, and of course, man landing on the moon and Woodstock.

Woodstock was actually what the Post story was about.

Why American life went on as normal during the killer pandemic of 1969

Patti Mulhearn Lydon, 68, doesn’t have rose-colored memories of attending Woodstock in August 1969. The rock festival, which took place over four days in Bethel, NY, mostly reminds her of being covered in mud and daydreaming about a hot shower.

…And all of this happened during a global pandemic in which over 1 million people died.  H3N2 (or the “Hong Kong flu,” as it was more popularly known) was an influenza strain that the New York Times described as “one of the worst in the nation’s history.” The first case of H3N2, which evolved from the H2N2 influenza strain that caused the 1957 pandemic, was reported in mid-July 1968 in Hong Kong. By September, it had infected Marines returning to the States from the Vietnam War. By mid-December, the Hong Kong flu had arrived in all 50 states.

But schools were not shut down nationwide, other than a few dozen because of too many sick teachers. Face masks weren’t required or even common. Though Woodstock was not held during the peak months of the H3N2 pandemic (the first wave ended by early March 1969, and it didn’t flare up again until November of that year), the festival went ahead when the virus was still active and had no known cure.

Sounds like a bunch of selfish punks trying to enjoy Spring Break.  At least that’s how they would be viewed now.  But the past is a different country, and the United States was a different country.

“Life continued as normal,” said Jeffrey Tucker, the editorial director for the American Institute for Economic Research. “But as with now, no one knew for certain how deadly [the pandemic] would turn out to be. Regardless, people went on with their lives.”

Which, he said, isn’t all that surprising. “That generation approached viruses with calm, rationality and intelligence,” he said. “We left disease mitigation to medical professionals, individuals and families, rather than politics, politicians and government.”

But Corona is different because reasons!

Aside from the different reactions to H3N2 and COVID-19, the similarities between them are striking. Both viruses spread quickly and cause upper respiratory symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath. They infect mostly adults over 65 or those with underlying medical conditions, but could strike people of any age. 

Both pandemics didn’t spare the rich and famous — Hitchcock actress Tallulah Bankhead and former CIA Director Allen Dulles succumbed to H3N2, while COVID-19 has taken the lives of singer-songwriter John Prine and playwright Terrence McNally, among others. President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey both fell ill from H3N2 and recovered, as did UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson from COVID-19 last month.

Even more similarities abound.

During both pandemics, horror stories abounded — from the bodies stored in refrigerated trucks in New York last month to corpses stored in subway tunnels in Germany during the H3N2 outbreak. 

Those who had H3N2 and survived describe a health battle that sounds eerily similar to COVID. “The coughing and difficulty breathing were the worst but it was the lethargy that kept me in bed,” said Jim Poling Sr., the author of “Killer Flu: The World on the Brink of a Pandemic,” who caught the virus while studying at Columbia University. “X-rays after recovery showed scarring at the bottom of my left lung.”

But still, the country moved on, got up, went to work, and did what it had to do.  Millennial-Nation on the other hand, wants everything to STOP until there is absolutely positively, no more risk.

The average person used to be smart enough to understand that every day walking out the front door was a risk, as was deciding to not walk out the door. Apparently we’re a much dumber country now, so going forward one can only wonder how we’ll deal with seasonal flu since we now regard normal risk as something only a crazy person would entertain.

Brave Dumb World.

2 thoughts on “How Did we ever survive the Hong Kong Flu?

  1. WOW Cuomo actually admits all early predictions were wrong:

    “I’m out of that business, because we all failed at that business. All the early national experts, here’s my projection, here’s my projection model, they were all all wrong, they were all wrong.”

    https://www.syracuse.com/news/2020/05/cuomo-ny-coronavirus-projections-all-wrong-too-early-to-tell-if-reopening-is-working.html

    And that’s *with* padding the numbers. Imagine if we knew the real numbers!

    Like

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