Why American life went on as normal during the killer pandemic of 1969
Patti Mulhearn Lydon, 68, doesn’t have rose-colored memories of attending Woodstock in August 1969. The rock festival, which took place over four days in Bethel, NY, mostly reminds her of being covered in mud and daydreaming about a hot shower.
She was a 17-year-old high-school student from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when she made the trek to Max Yasgur’s farm with her boyfriend Rod. For three nights, she shared an outdoor bedroom with 300,000 other rock fans from around the country, most of whom were probably not washing their hands for the length of “Happy Birthday” — or at all.
“There was no food or water, but one of our guys cut an apple into twenty-seven slices and we all shared it,” she said. At some point, a garden hose from one of the farm’s neighbors was passed around and strangers used it as a communal source for bathing and drinking, she said.
And all of this happened during a global pandemic in which over one million people died.
H3N2 (or the “Hong Kong flu,” as it was more popularly known) was an influenza strain that the New York Times described as “one of the worst in the nation’s history.” The first case of H3N2, which evolved from the H2N2 influenza strain that caused the 1957 pandemic, was reported in mid-July 1968 in Hong Kong. By September, it had infected Marines returning to the States from the Vietnam War. By mid-December, the Hong Kong flu had arrived in all fifty states.
But schools were not shut down nationwide, other than a few dozen because of too many sick teachers. Face masks weren’t required or even common. Though Woodstock was not held during the peak months of the H3N2 pandemic (the first wave ended by early March 1969, and it didn’t flare up again until November of that year), the festival went ahead when the virus was still active and had no known cure.
“I wish they had social distancing at Woodstock,” jokes Lydon, who now lives in Delray Beach, Florida, and works as a purchasing manager for MDVIP, a network of primary care doctors. “You had to climb over people to get anywhere.”
I wish they had social distancing at Woodstock.
“Life continued as normal,” said Jeffrey Tucker, the editorial director for the American Institute for Economic Research. “But as with now, no one knew for certain how deadly [the pandemic] would turn out to be. Regardless, people went on with their lives.”
Which, he said, isn’t all that surprising. “That generation approached viruses with calm, rationality and intelligence,” he said. “We left disease mitigation to medical professionals, individuals and families, rather than politics, politicians and government.”
While it’s way too soon to compare the numbers, H3N2 has so far proved deadlier than COVID-19. Between 1968 and 1970, the Hong Kong flu killed between an estimated one and four million, according to the CDC and Encyclopaedia Britannica, with US deaths exceeding 100,000. As of this writing, COVID-19 has killed more than 295,000 globally and around 83,000 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University. But by all projections, the coronavirus will surpass H3N2’s body count even with a global shutdown.
Aside from the different reactions to H3N2 and COVID-19, the similarities between them are striking. Both viruses spread quickly and cause upper respiratory symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath. They infect mostly adults over 65 or those with underlying medical conditions, but could strike people of any age.
Both pandemics didn’t spare the rich and famous — Hitchcock actress Tallulah Bankhead and former CIA director Allen Dulles succumbed to H3N2, while COVID-19 has taken the lives of singer-songwriter John Prine and playwright Terrence McNally, among others. President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Humphrey both fell ill from H3N2 and recovered, as did UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson from COVID-19 last month.
Both viruses infected animals — a 4-year-old Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for the coronavirus in early April, and in January 1969, the original Shamu at San Diego’s SeaWorld, along with two other killer whales named Ramu and Kilroy, contracted the Hong Kong flu.
Both pandemics brought drama to outer space: During an Apollo 8 mission in December 1968, commander Frank Borman came down with the Hong Kong flu while in orbit. And in early April, three NASA astronauts returned to Earth after seven months aboard the International Space Station, with astronaut Jessica Meir remarking that it felt like coming home “to a different planet.”
During both pandemics, horror stories abounded — from the bodies stored in refrigerated trucks in New York last month to corpses stored in subway tunnels in Germany during the H3N2 outbreak.
Those who had H3N2 and survived describe a health battle that sounds eerily familiar to COVID. “The coughing and difficulty breathing were the worst but it was the lethargy that kept me in bed,” said Jim Poling Sr., the author of “Killer Flu: The World on the Brink of a Pandemic,” who caught the virus while studying at Columbia University. “X-rays after recovery showed scarring at the bottom of my left lung.”
Renee Ward, 53, remembers her entire family contracting the virus in Greenville, NC, during Christmas of 1968. “My father got sick first, quickly followed by me and my mother,” she said. But their symptoms were mild, for the most part. “Christmas morning, I was trying to play with my new kitchen set from Santa, while my mother watched from the couch and cried because we couldn’t travel to be with my grandparents.”
Linda Murray Bullard, 60, from Chattanooga, Tenn., remembers visiting a “super” grocery store with her mom just before Thanksgiving in 1968. Days later, her mother was in bed with a fever, chills and dry cough.
“I turned 9 years old on December 5th, but because she was so ill we didn’t celebrate,” said Bullard. “I just wanted her to feel better.” Days before Christmas Eve, her 33-year-old mother went to an ER and was diagnosed with the Hong Kong flu. She died shortly after.
The global fight to stop (or at least slow down) COVID-19 has brought heavy restrictions on all aspects of public life, including restaurants, bars, weddings, funerals, churches, movie theaters and gyms. Schools have reverted to remote learning and most business now happens via Zoom. The Grand Canyon is closed, as are all Disney parks and Las Vegas casinos. Professional sports are on indefinite hold, including Wimbledon, which canceled for the first time since World War II.
How does this compare to the Hong Kong flu? Nathaniel Moir, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said there were few precautions taken during the H3N2 pandemic other than washing hands and staying home when sick.
“It was like the pandemic hadn’t even happened if you look for it in history books,” he said. “I am still shocked at how differently people addressed — or maybe even ignored it — in 1968 compared to 2020.”
The virus rarely made front-page news. A 1968 story in the Associated Press warned that deaths caused by the Hong Kong flu “more than doubled across the nation in the third week of December.” But the story was buried on page 24. The New York Post didn’t publish any stories about the pandemic in 1968, and in 1969, coverage was mostly minor, like reports of newly married couples delaying honeymoons because of the virus and the Yonkers police force calling in sick with the Hong Kong flu during wage negotiations.
A vaccine was soon developed — in August 1969, not long after Woodstock — but the news of a cure didn’t get much media attention either.
It may seem like the world responded to the 1968 pandemic with a shrug of indifference, but the different approaches may be down to a generational divide, said Poling. In 1968, “we were confident with all the advances in medicine. Measles, mumps, chickenpox, scarlet fever and polio all had been brought under control,” he said.
Tucker remembers being taught as a child of the ’60s that “getting viruses ultimately strengthened one’s immune system. One of my most vivid memories is of a chickenpox party. The idea was that you should get it and get it over with when you are young.”
Even with those relaxed ideas about viruses, the Hong Kong flu caught the world by surprise. It was different from previous pandemics because of how fast it spread, thanks largely to increased international air travel.
Much of our current thinking about infectious diseases in the modern era changed because of the SARS outbreak of 2003, which “scared the hell out of many people,” said Poling. “It’s the first time I recall people wearing masks and trying to distance themselves from others, particularly in situations where someone might cough or sneeze.”
The idea that a pandemic could be controlled with social distancing and public lockdowns is a relatively new one, said Tucker. It was first suggested in a 2006 study by New Mexico scientist Robert J. Glass, who got the idea from his 14-year-old daughter’s science project.
“Two government doctors, not even epidemiologists” — Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, who worked for the Bush administration — “hatched the idea [of using government-enforced social distancing] and hoped to try it out on the next virus.” We are in effect, Tucker said, part of a grand social experiment.
But the differences between how the world responded to two pandemics, separated by 50 years, is more complicated than any single explanation.
“If I were 48 in 1968, I would have most likely served in World War II,” said Moir. “I would have had a little brother who served in Korea, and possibly might have a son or daughter fighting in Vietnam.” Death, he said, was a bigger and in some ways more accepted part of American life.
The Hong Kong flu also arrived in a particularly volatile moment in history. There was the race to land a man on the moon and political assassinations and sexual liberation and the civil-rights movement. Without 24/7 news coverage and social media vying for our attention, a new strain of flu could hardly compete for the public’s attention.
But, even if people in 1968 had been told to stay home, it’s unlikely they would’ve protested, Moir said. Dining out, for instance, was a rare indulgence for most American families then. Today, “we spend as much eating out as we do preparing food at home,” Moir said. A 2013 study by market research firm NPD Group found that between the mid-1960s to the late 2000s, middle-income households went from eating at home 92 percent of the time to 69 percent of the time.
In 2020, we feel that being denied music festivals and restaurants is an egregious attack on our liberty. “A big part of our freakout over COVID-19 is a reaction to everything in this country that we’ve taken for granted,” Moir said. “When it’s taken away, we lose our minds.”
It’s a point echoed by Lydon. Her best memories of that wild weekend aren’t the sweaty crowds or the music — Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar scared the “begeebers” out of her, she said — but the quiet moments afterwards back at a parent’s house in New Jersey.
“I ate the best grilled-cheese sandwich and drank the best lemonade,” she said. And “I took the best shower I ever remember.”
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