Do you remember the 1957-58 Asian flu? Or the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu? I do. I was a teenager during the first of these, an adult finishing law school during the second. But even though back then I followed the news much more than the average person my age, I can’t dredge up more than the dimmest memory of either.
I don’t have any memory of schools closing, though apparently, a few did here and there. I have no memories of city or state lockdowns, of closed offices and factories and department stores, of people banned from parks and beaches.
Yet these two influenzas had death tolls roughly comparable to that of COVID-19. Between 70,000 and 116,000 people in the US died from Asian flu. That’s between 0.04 percent and 0.07 percent of the nation’s population, somewhat more than the 0.03% of the COVID-19 death rate so far.
The Asian flu, unlike COVID-19, was rarely fatal for children and was more deadly for the elderly — and pregnant women.
The Hong Kong flu, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says, had more precisely an estimated U.S. death toll of 100,000 in 1968-70 (years that included the Woodstock festival), 0.05 percent of the total population. Both flus had high death rates among the elderly but, apparently, not as high a proportion as COVID-19 has had.
Once again, there were no nationwide school closings, no multi-month lockdowns, no daily presidential news conferences. Apparently, neither the nation’s leaders nor the vast bulk of its people felt that such drastic measures were called for.
Perhaps some of this calm reaction can be ascribed to confidence that a vaccine would be developed, as other flu vaccines had been developed after the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic. But flu vaccines are never entirely effective, and none were widely available until after the Asian and Hong Kong flus had swept over the nation.
Fundamental attitudes can change in a nation over half a century, and the very different responses to this year’s coronavirus pandemic and the influenzas of 50 and 60 years ago suggest that Americans today are much more risk-averse, much more willing to undergo massive inconvenience and disruption to avoid marginal increases in fatal risk.