The 1968-69 “Hong Kong flu” pandemic revisited


It was a very bad year for the flu. The pathogen came in two big waves. This is only obvious in retrospect. At the time, not so much. Life went on normally. There were rallies. There were parties. There were trips. There were no masks. Doctors cared for the sick. Traditional public health reigned as during the flu pandemic ten years earlier. No one considered the lockdowns.

That’s a good thing because it’s at the heart of it that many ‘super-spreader’ events have taken place, including Woodstock itself. This event influenced all subsequent popular music, and continues to do so today. No one was deprived of schooling or worship or separated from loved ones while dying. The weddings took place normally. Indeed, hardly anyone remembers any of this.

This influenza strain (H3N2) spread from Hong Kong to the United States on the predictable schedule, arriving in December 1968 and peaking a year later. It eventually killed 100,000 people in the United States, mostly over the age of 65, and one million worldwide.

The lifespan in the United States at that time was 70 years whereas it is 78 years today. The population was 200 million compared to 328 million today. If it were possible to extrapolate death data based on population and demographics, we might be looking at to a quarter of a million deaths today from this virus. (As to the exact number of dead of COVID, we’re not really in a position to know yet due to confusion between cases and inflection, forced mass testing, inaccurate testing, and widely accepted misclassification of causes of death.)

So in terms of lethality, it was deadly and scary. “In 1968/69”, said Nathaniel L. Moir in National Interest, “The H3N2 pandemic killed more people in the United States than the combined total number of American deaths during the Vietnam and Korean wars.” It wasn’t like dark as 1957–58 but it still had a case fatality rate of 0.5%.

And it happened in the life of every American over the age of 54.

You could go to the cinema. You could go to bars and restaurants. John Fund has a friend who reports attending a Grateful Dead concert. In fact, people have no memory or awareness that the famous Woodstock concert of August 1969 – scheduled for January during death’s worst time – happened during a deadly American flu pandemic that didn’t peaked globally only six months later. We did not think about the virus which, like ours today, was dangerous mainly for a demographic that does not go to concerts.

Stock markets didn’t crash because of the flu. Congress has passed no laws. The Federal Reserve did nothing. Not a single governor has acted to enforce social distancing, flattening the curve (even though hundreds of thousands have been hospitalized) or banning crowds. The only school closures were due to absenteeism.

No mother has been arrested for taking her children to other homes. No surfers were arrested. No daycares have been closed even though there have been more infant deaths with this virus than the one we just experienced. There were no suicides, no unemployment, no flu overdoses.

The media covered the pandemic, but it never became a big deal.

The only measures governments have taken have been to collect data, watch and wait, encourage testing and vaccines, etc. The medical community took the primary responsibility for mitigating the disease, as one would expect. It was widely accepted that epidemics required medical, not political responses.

It is not as if governments refuse to intervene in other areas. We had the Vietnam War, welfare, public housing, urban renewal and the rise of Medicare and Medicaid. We had a president who swore to cure all poverty, illiteracy and disease. The government was as intrusive as it had ever been in history. But for some reason, we didn’t think about closures.

Which begs the question: why was this time different? We’ll be trying to figure this one out for decades. Was the difference that mass media invades our lives with endless notifications exploding in our pockets? Has there been a change in philosophy such that we now believe that politics is responsible for all existing aspects of life?

Was there a political element here in the fact that the media exaggerated this in taking revenge on Trump and his deplorables? Or has our over-adoration of predictive modeling got out of control to the point that we leave a physicist with ridiculous models frighten the governments of the world into violating the human rights of billions of people?

Maybe it was all factors. Or maybe there is something darker and more nefarious at work, as conspiracy theorists claim. Anyway, they all have explanations to give.

From my personal recollections, my own mother and father were part of a generation that believed they had developed a sophisticated view of viruses. They understood that less vulnerable people who benefited from it not only strengthened their immune system, but also helped to mitigate the disease by achieving “herd immunity”. They had a whole protocol for making a child feel better about being sick. I have a “sick toy”, unlimited ice cream, Vicks on my chest, a humidifier in my room, etc.

They were constantly praising me for building immunity. They did their best to be happy with my viruses, while doing their best to get me through them.

What happened between then and now? Was there some kind of lost knowledge, like arrived with scurvy, when we once had sophistication and knowledge was lost and had to be regained? For COVID-19, we have reverted to medieval-style understandings and policies, even in the 21st century, and at the urging of the media and short-sighted advice from governments. It’s very strange. And he cries out for answers.

From Brownstone Institute

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Epoch Times.

Jeffrey A. Tucker


Jeffrey Tucker is founder and president of the Brownstone Institute. He is the author of five books, including “Right-Wing Collectivism: The Other Threat to Liberty”.