Summer of ’69: Why Did We Treat the 1968-1969 Hong Kong Pandemic Differently than the Coronavirus?

Robert Brooks Contributor
Summer of ’69: Why Did We Treat the 1968-1969 Hong Kong Pandemic Differently than the Coronavirus?
Read Time: approx. 2:34

Cover: Opening ceremony at Woodstock, 15 August 1969. As the Hong Kong Flu pandemic spread across the world, over 400,000 people attended the legendary Wooodstock festival.

A Quick History Lesson: In July 1968, a flu pandemic appeared in Hong Kong and within a month extensive outbreaks were reported in Vietnam and Singapore. By September of that year, the outbreak had reached India, the Philippines, northern Australia, and Europe. Simultaneously, the virus entered California, carried by returning troops from the Vietnam War, but it did not become widespread in the United States until the final month of the year. Then, in 1969, it reached Japan, Africa, and South America and in turn, gruesome reports began to emerge regarding its spread. The WSJ writes that, “the novel virus triggered a state of emergency in New York City; caused so many deaths in Berlin that corpses were stored in subway tunnels; overwhelmed London’s hospitals; and in some areas of France left half of the workforce bedridden. Severely ill patients suffering from acute pneumonia were put on ventilators, often in vain.” Sound familiar?

One Big Difference: While there are many notable similarities between the Hong Kong Flu and COVID-19 (e.g. symptomology and who is most vulnerable to the disease), one key difference is that life went on relatively unchanged. That is, large-scale lock down and social distancing measures were not used. Ultimately, according to the CDC, the Hong Kong flu claimed around 1 million lives worldwide, 100,000 of which were US citizens.

Why it Matters: As the Hong Kong Flu spread across the world, America was dealing with a multitude of generational issues that would come to define the country. The decade began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There was a race to land a man on the moon, sexual liberation, and the civil rights movement. The virus rarely made front page news, and the heavy restrictions we’re currently experiencing didn’t exist. In fact, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of the term “social-distancing” didn’t even appear until 2003. As many grow frustrated with life indoors, some are pointing to the lack of “burdensome” restrictions in 1968 as reason for normal life to resume. They have also pointed to the fact that in the summer of 1969 the Woodstock festival, which attracted 400,000 people, took place during the pandemic. Other sources have contested the implications of the statement, and they argued that Woodstock took place during the “calm” between the first and second waves in the United States.

So, What’s Changed? On June 17, 1985, Canadian musician Bryan Adams released his international hit, “Summer of ’69” in which he sings about, “the best days of [his] life.” In fact, “when [he] looks back now, that summer seemed to last forever” and “if [he] had the choice, [he’d] always wanna be there… back in the summer of ’69.” If the coronavirus continues to derail travel, keep bars and restaurants closed, and prolong social distancing, it’s hard to see the “Summer of 20” being “the best days of [our] lives.” So what changed? What’s so different between now and then?

One Theory: Nathaniel Moir, a postdoctoral candidate at Harvard University, speculates that if lockdown measures had been instituted in 1968, it’s unlikely that they would have been met with the resistance we see today. Back then, people dined out and traveled significantly less than we do now. He states, “A big part of our freak-out over COVID-19 is a reaction to everything in this country that we’ve taken for granted. When it is taken away, we lose our minds.”

Another Theory: An additional difference between now and then is the media’s business model. As we’ve mentioned before, the internet and social media forced print publications to migrate online. However, little did they know, news outlets stepped into a click-based cage match, which began rewarding sites that broke news the quickest (even if it wasn’t fully accurate) and those with the most outlandish headlines, aka, clickbait. Layer on algorithms that only show people what they want to see, and you have today’s hyper-partisan news ecosystem that caters to each side’s echo-chamber. The coronavirus has been politicized in a way that the Hong-Kong flu wasn’t. You can blame this on whoever you want, but a big factor has to do with the way modern-day media is set up to generate revenue.

What’s next: Well, the real answer is that nobody knows. If the Hong Kong flu serves as a benchmark, its important to note that it did returned during the following 1969-1970 flu season, resulting in a second, deadlier wave of deaths. In fact, it remains in circulation today as a strain of the seasonal flu. Some have warned that the coronavirus will also “never go away.” If this is true, it lends credence to those who say we can’t wait for a cure. In fact, we must resume some sense of normalcy, just like our moms, dads, and grandparents did back in the summer of 69.