Pandemic Response: 1968 vs. Now

I found this American Institute for Economic Research article comparing society’s response to the current COVID-19 crisis to the H3N2 pandemic of 50 years ago both enlightening and discouraging.

H3N2 (or the “Hong Kong flu,” as it was more popularly known) occurred between 1968-1970. It arrived in the United States from Hong Kong in September 1968, peaking in mid-December through January 1969. It ultimately killed 100,000 people in the U.S., mostly over the age of 65, and one million worldwide.

At that time, the U.S. lifespan was 70 whereas it is 78 today. The population was much smaller, 200 million as compared to 328 million. Adjusting for population and demographics, it’s probable the pandemic of five decades ago would result in a quarter million deaths today, making it as lethal as COVID-19.

But while the outbreak is shockingly similar in scale, the way society handled it couldn’t be more different. Stock markets didn’t plummet. Congress passed no legislation. The Federal Reserve didn’t cut interest rates. Not a single governor acted to enforce social distancing, curve flattening (even though hundreds of thousands of people were hospitalized), or crowd banning. No daycares shuttered despite there being more infant deaths from H3N2 than there have been from COVID-19. No paddleboarders were arrested for violating stay-at-home orders. Unemployment didn’t skyrocket. There was no worry of increased suicides or drug misuse/overdoses. Despite a New York Times editorial describing the pandemic as “one of the worst in the nation’s history,” only 23 schools and colleges closed, businesses remained open, and Woodstock was still held (although it took place between the first and second waves of the pandemic). Going about daily life in the face of the disease was a deliberate choice.

So what changed between 1968 and now? Dr. Deborah Birx cited fatality estimates from a Imperial College London epidemiology model for the federal government’s drastic restrictions, a model now being questioned for its veracity. Some theorize there were partisan elements to the government mandated shelter-in-place orders, with political parties using them to achieve objectives unrelated to public health. Certainly, the Vietnam War received far greater media coverage than the virus in a much less invasive way. Today, with a relentless 24-hour news cycle, stories of COVID-19 can dominate. 

I don’t know the answer. But as a National Review article urges, I do think there’s value in revisiting the nation’s response to the Hong Kong flu pandemic. Much like the world repeatedly learned and lost the cure for scurvy, it seems like the country needs to rediscover how it treated past disease-born hardships so it can make the most well-informed decisions regarding future pandemic measures. As a healthcare leader, I believe I have a duty to bring that knowledge to light. 

Stay safe, stay strong!

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