Politics & Policy

The Forgotten Hong Kong Flu Pandemic of 1968 Has Lessons for Today

A “closed” sign hangs in a local park in Exchange Place, N.J., with Lower Manhattan in New York City visible in the distance, April 25, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Americans were more resilient, less vulnerable to groupthink, and committed to going to work and washing their hands.

We’re not just living through an earthshaking pandemic.

We’re living through a new crisis in which a highly virulent virus arrives at the very moment when ubiquitous media coverage, global interconnectivity, and a certain amount of scientific conformity amplify everything.

All of this has combined to create an unprecedented public-policy response. For the first time in history, we’ve effectively quarantined the healthy population while also practicing social distancing and protecting the old, vulnerable, and frail. Even public-health experts such as Doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx admit that an economic lockdown is an untried and untested theory.

Just how much so can be seen if we look back at how the U.S. — and indeed the world — handled the now largely forgotten 1968–’69 Hong Kong flu pandemic. It was an especially infectious virus that had the ability to mutate and render existing vaccines ineffective.

Hundreds of thousands were hospitalized in the U.S. as the disease hit all 50 states by Christmas 1968. Like COVID-19, It was fatal primarily to people older than 65 with preexisting conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that it killed more than 1 million people worldwide, more than 100,000 of them in the U.S. Luckily, a vaccine was developed early — in August 1969. But the Hong Kong flu is still with us as a seasonal malady.

I am just old enough to remember the Hong Kong flu. Like the majority of those infected, I didn’t get sick. But my family lived down the road from Travis Air Force Base in the Bay Area, the main return point for soldiers coming home from Vietnam in the fall of 1968. Living near the place of that flu’s first contact piqued my interest, and I recall preparing a school report on the virus.

It amazes me now, but I was able to give my oral report in class because the schools didn’t close in California — or anywhere else in the country. Shawn Steel, now a California attorney, remembers attending a Grateful Dead concert in December 1968 at the Shrine Auditorium at the University of Southern California.

We were more resilient then, there were no helicopter parents, and we were brought up in an era when it wasn’t unknown to get chicken pox, measles, mumps, German measles, or scarlet fever. Polio had haunted people’s nightmares until a vaccine was developed in the mid-1950s. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s earliest childhood memory is of the day he checked out of the polio treatment center in Warm Springs, Ga.

During the Hong Kong flu, Americans rode buses less often, washed their hands, and practiced social distancing. But they went to work.

Marilyn Brown worked at the Los Angeles Department of Social Services during the Hong Kong flu. “Other than my coworkers bringing their own alcohol to wipe down their desks and wipe down pencils and not use pencils that clients had used, we didn’t do anything,” she recently told Travel Weekly.

Philip Snashall, a now retired professor of medicine, wrote in the British Medical Journal that his two-year-old daughter contracted the first known case of the Hong Kong flu to hit Europe. “How things change,” he noted. “The stock market did not plummet, we were not besieged by the press, men in breathing apparatus did not invade my daughter’s play group.”

The global response to COVID-19 couldn’t stand in starker contrast. Leaders have made the decision to do everything possible, including bringing entire economies to a crashing halt, to limit the loss of life. They’ve swept aside considerations of the negative health effects of locking people inside with a virus that spreads most virulently indoors. People who’ve been denied nonemergency surgeries are expected to comply and shut up about their pain, even though some will undoubtedly die from their conditions.

Joel Hay, a professor of pharmaceutical economics and policy at the University of Southern California, told me that the role of science has also changed. Medical technology has vastly improved from a time when people still did computations on slide rules. But the data it produces has seduced some into thinking that we know more than we actually do and that we can produce useful models to predict the course of this novel coronavirus disease. “We’re being bombarded with data, but we often act like the guy who looks for his keys under the lamppost because the light is better there,” he told me. “We aren’t asking more fundamental questions, like ‘Does this $20 trillion experiment in lockdowns actually work?’”

Our politicians also face new pressures that their counterparts in 1968 didn’t. Susan Craddock, professor at the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota, told the Wall Street Journal that 24-hour news coverage, social media, and heightened public anxiety mean today’s leaders face far more pressure to do something.

“The thing elected officials fear most is social stigma from challenging the conventional wisdom,” Colorado state senator Vicki Meeker told me.

In Sweden, in line with national traditions and the culture there, scientists rather than politicians take the lead and establish pandemic policy. Swedish scientists also take responsibility for their decisions and speak honestly of tradeoffs. Johan Giesecke, the country’s former chief epidemiologist, bluntly said on Swedish radio recently that harsh lockdowns make little sense and that it’s the rest of the world that’s conducting an experiment in lockdowns based on shaky models. In Sweden, people are encouraged to stay home, but stores, restaurants, and offices remain open. “Better to have social distancing people can live with for months than severe lockdowns that get reimposed if cases rise once they are lifted,” Giesecke said.

But the rest of the world has chosen the lockdown path, and I fear the upper hand belongs to those who wish to reduce the risk of infection regardless of the high associated costs to the overall health or society.

In 1975, as Ronald Reagan left the governor’s office in California and was looking back on his time managing the state, he spoke to a student audience about nuclear power. “I note that an overly excited group of Californians has formed something called People for Proof,” to crusade for a risk-free future, he said. He warned that “this kind of group is as contagious as the Hong Kong flu.” Like the flu, such groups will now always be with us, I fear.

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