The Hong Kong influenza epidemic of 1968-9 was much more deadly overall than Covid-19. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, between one million and four million died worldwide. The global population was then 3.6 billion, less than half today’s 7.8 billion. I believe the coronavirus is unlikely to kill more than one million, which will be a substantially smaller proportion of the world’s population than the toll from Hong Kong flu.
Yet, in 1968, society in many ways carried on as normal. Almost all schools, churches, universities, businesses, theatres, public transport and shops stayed open the entire time. There was no lockdown and no social distancing. Mask-wearing was minimal. The Woodstock music festival in August 1969 hosted an audience of more than 400,000 in highly unsanitary conditions. There was no hysteria in the media about the illness, no propaganda from the government designed to frighten citizens senseless. Economies did not slump; tens of millions were not made redundant and thrown on the dole when companies were obliged to shut; international travel was not halted; and there were no complex quarantine.
Hong Kong flu was actually worse than Covid-19 because it struck infants as well as the elderly. Both viruses originated in China. The 1968-9 disease was probably as contagious as Covid-19. Yet, in many respects, that epidemic is treated as a historical footnote: indeed, detailed facts about it are scarce. Some half a century ago, the world took a pandemic in its stride.
Why did the world behave so differently this time? An entire public health industrial complex has developed in recent years, almost willing a novel epidemic to hit the world.
For many public health specialists, this is their moment of fame and glory. An article in the medical journal The Lancet has commented that “critics of the UK government’s response are perhaps right to point to the role of epidemiology and statistical modelling in propagating fear”.
Digital media has exacerbated and enabled the 2020 pandemic panic. Viral videos of chaos in northern Italian hospitals in March this year scared the public and authorities witless, leading to knee-jerk reactions, such as universal lockdowns across Europe and America — supposedly designed to protect healthcare systems. Online news, social media, the press and 24-hour TV channels fed a morbid appetite for grim daily updates — so the public meekly complied with, in effect, house arrest.
Half the UK workforce was able to work from home thanks to digital communication tools such as Zoom. People could mostly continue to earn under lockdown, stay in touch and order food from online grocers.
In Britain, almost a third of the working population was paid to stay idle at home under furlough. A sunny spring and summer made it into an extended holiday for many. Interest rates at close to zero mean that governments can borrow vast sums to pay the bills for the expensive consequences of their disproportionate reactions.
In 1968, interest rates were about 6%. It would have been prohibitively costly for governments to borrow the trillions they are taking on now to pay the bills for the huge interventions such as furlough, tax holidays and so forth.
Society is, on average, much older and more obese now, so probably a higher proportion of the population feels vulnerable to a new disease. Calling it the coronavirus immediately made it sound more sinister than flu. We are much more obsessed now with health and safety, and institutions tend to adopt the precautionary principle at every opportunity. In so many aspects of life, from sports to driving to workplaces to schools, we have become more risk-averse, and organisations are fearful of litigation and reputational damage in the case of accidents or mistakes.
Ultimately, we have generally become much more sentimental, less stoic, more hypochondriac and less able to deal with death and our mortality. I suspect we are a much more self-indulgent, decadent generation than those of the past.
Fifty years ago, there were millions still alive who had fought for freedom in the Second World War. They understood better than we do the importance of defending our everyday liberties, and making the most of life in the face of sudden death. We know the number who have died from (or with) Covid-19. But no one knows the true cost of the epic collateral damage caused by lockdowns, fear, social distancing and suchlike. The cancer and heart disease deaths, mental illness, suicides, job losses, bankruptcies, evictions, tax rises, increased indebtedness, missed schooling — the list is considerable.
Sometimes we acquire wisdom from the past — and sometimes the modern world gets things very badly wrong.