Commentary / Coronavirus

Remembering the 1957 Asian Flu Pandemic

coronavirusSurrounded by amulets of the coronavirus crisis, I stare out my window at a city that may or may not be on the verge of disaster. To my right is a case of canned pasta. To my left are cartons of corned-beef hash from New Jersey and bottled water from Maine. I’m ready for whatever comes.

Except, I’m not ready. In fact, even at my advanced 80-something age, I find the whole COVID-19 panic to be strange and troubling. I’ve lived through epidemics before, but they didn’t crash the stock market, wreck a booming economy, and shut down international travel. They didn’t stop the St. Patrick’s Day parade or the NCAA basketball tournament, and they didn’t drop the curtain on Broadway shows. Will these extreme measures have any real effect on the spread of COVID-19 in New York, or America? We’re about to find out.

My first encounter with a global pandemic came in October 1957, when I spent a week in my college infirmary with a case of the H2N2 virus, known at the time by the politically incorrect name of “Asian flu.” My fever spiked to 105, and I was sicker than I’d ever been. The infirmary quickly filled with other cases, though some ailing students toughed it out in their dorm rooms with aspirin and orange juice. The college itself did not close, and the surrounding town did not impose restrictions on public gatherings. The day that I was discharged from the infirmary, I played in an intercollegiate soccer game, which drew a big crowd.

It’s not that Asian flu—the second influenza pandemic of the twentieth century—wasn’t a serious disease. Worldwide, this flu strain killed somewhere between 1 and 2 million people. More than 100,000 died in the U.S. alone. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, governors did not call out the National Guard, and political panic-mongers did not blame it all on President Eisenhower. College sports events were not cancelled, planes and trains continued to run, and Americans did not regard one another with fear and suspicion, touching elbows instead of hands. We took the Asian flu in stride. We said our prayers and took our chances.

Today, I look back and wonder if an oblivious America faced the 1957 plague with a kind of clueless folly. Why weren’t we more active in fighting this contagion? Could stricter quarantine procedures have reduced the rate of infection and lowered the death toll? In short, why weren’t we more afraid?

It’s hard to answer that question without explaining what it was like to grow up in an age of infectious illness. My mother once showed me a list of the contagious diseases she survived before the age of 20. On the list were the usual childhood illnesses, along with deadly afflictions like typhoid fever, pneumonia, diphtheria (it killed her older brother), scarlet fever, and the lethal 1918–19 Spanish flu, which took more than 50 million lives around the world.

For those who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, there was nothing unusual about finding yourself threatened by contagious disease. Mumps, measles, chicken pox, and German measles swept through entire schools and towns; I had all four. Polio took a heavy annual toll, leaving thousands of people (mostly children) paralyzed or dead. There were no vaccines. Growing up meant running an unavoidable gauntlet of infectious disease. For college students in 1957, the Asian flu was a familiar hurdle on the road to adulthood. For everyone older, the flu was a familiar foe. There was no possibility of working at home. You had to go out and face the danger.

Today, thanks to vaccines, fewer and fewer people remember what it was like to survive a succession of childhood diseases. Is the unfamiliar threat of serious sickness making us more afraid of COVID-19 than we need to be? Does a society that relies more on politics than faith now find itself in an uncomfortable bind, unable to lecture, browbeat, intimidate, or evade the incorrect behavior of a dangerous microbe?

When the coronavirus finally runs its course, one of the most important tasks for health-care officials will be to determine whether the preventive measures we’re taking today were effective. Did deploying the National Guard save lives, or did it simply expose the soldiers to an infection that, in the end, could not be stopped? Did we pay too high a price for tanking our economy and disrupting our society?

Or did we get it right, acting quickly and decisively to slow the virus, shutting down possible pathways of infection? By comparing the 2020 data with information from 1957, we’ll also be able to find out if the strange people who lived in that distant year—and I remember them well—could have done more to reduce the death toll of the Asian flu. The more answers we get, and the sooner we get them, the better it will be for everyone. When the curtain goes up on Broadway again, somewhere in a faraway continent to be named later, we can be sure that new viruses will be waiting in the wings.

Reprinted with Permission from - City Journal by- Clark Whelton

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Barbara Rice
2 years ago

Great article lived through many of those diseases with faith, cleanliness, fresh air, hard work , true grit to name a few

John Gross
2 years ago

I’m 77 born in 1943 I’ve seems lot the press sounds like Eore from Winny the poo no positive all negative. I’m so glad they weren’t the ones reporting on the war that I was born in the middle of.!

Eileen Fullenwider
2 years ago

I remember

Jody Jonas
2 years ago

I’m 88 and I had the Asian flu ( I called it the Hong Kong flu) in 1957. Wanted to die and couldn’t. Fortunately, had a good friend from work that came to my house to change sheets on my bed that were soaked from my perspiration as a result of high fever. Neither my husband nor my four year old got the flu. I, too, had polio when I was 9 years old as well as all the usual diseases kid got in those days. Don’t know how we managed to survive through those years – perhaps a natural immunity from playing outside in the fresh air and getting dirty!! Seems my great grandchildren are always sick.

Kathleen L Rinck
2 years ago

I believe the media is taking full advantage of this situation to sink a president they despise. That, I believe, is more their motive than keeping us informed. They have accused Trump of being totally unprepared, although I don’t know what more any Democrat president could do than Trump has. They have instilled total panic and fear in the American people, sinking the economy and causing millions of workers to be laid off. It is their perfect storm. There was no hatred for President Eisenhower and the media was not so liberal then, and that made all the difference.

2 years ago

How much is the subscription rate?

Linda Eagle
2 years ago

Excellent article. I hope all those in “Washington” will read this.

2 years ago

Amen! I couldn’t agree more! A mass hysteria over 120 deaths related to the virus in the USA? Please do some simple math percentages; 120 deaths from a population of 340 million people and the government is calling it a crisis??? I went through the Polio vaccination procedures in the late 1950’s and even then, there was no shut down of anything! People are being hyped unnecessarily by the fake news media and never Trumpers!

2 years ago

I was in elementary school when I caught the Asian Flu and nearly died. After a week of severe illness, my larynx swelled & closed my airway. A hospital close by and a trach saved me, along with, of course, our very good doctor.
I find this non-stop hysteria in the media to be disgusting. Why don’t they spend their time reporting the number of deaths a day from drug overdoses?
The Liberals don’t care what happens to us as long as they can destroy our economy to give them one chance to “overthrow” Trump. Prayers for our Country and those who are sick and suffering from this pandemic.

Diana Erbio
2 years ago

Thank you for that piece, I too wonder if this reaction is the correct one…so many unintended consequences to wonder about from shutting the country down…

jack conway
2 years ago

The way people are behaving ( buying ridiculous amounts of items) so the regular as needed buyer finds empty shelves when needing things is crazy stupidness much caused by inaccurate over-sensationalized media sources. I can’t believe so many people now days have no common sense at all. When a country relies on media ( thinking it’s all correct and true because they get it on their phone ) or the govt. more than common sense, faith and values. Things will get worse before better.
Good article

June A Brady
2 years ago

I have been thru everything and am still here at 82 and with God’s help I will get thru the virus too. That is a great article.

2 years ago

Seeing Pelosi and Schumer turns most sane folks’

2 years ago

R0 values show Covid-19 is far more contagious that the Asian flu ever was. Asian flu was also transmitted primarily when people were symptomatic. Covid-19 is being transmitted when people are completely asymptomatic. Its not very useful to compare our percapita health system capacity now with what it was like in 1957. The precautionary measures are necessary to avoid a collapse of our health care system so we don’t end up like Italy who ignored social distancing and shutting things down for far too long. Failure to do this will impact the elderly most of all, but will also impact people who are otherwise healthy but have a health emergency. This is no joke and its not because “young people are delicate snowflakes who don’t have an appreciation for how hard life used to be or had to walk miles to school in the snow, etc…” Its simple math. We made it through the ’57 Asian Flu without wider deaths because of luck – H2N2 didn’t end up being that transmissive, mortality rates were lower, our population densities weren’t nearly as high or interconnected globally. If not taken seriously COVID-19 could end up being like the Spanish Flu or worse. The difference between now and then is we know a lot more. The risk though is that people keep spreading misinformation and dangerous sentiment that this is “no big deal” and an overreaction. Stop it.

Daniel McGrain
2 years ago

The whole world has become much more mobile than the people of 1957. We go further and do it faster while doing it more frequently. Larger airplanes crammed with more people and cruise ships packed with the average Joe that couldn’t afford the price of a ticket in 1957 can now. Along with being able to see the world and doing business has also given speed to pandemic illness.

tessa d
2 years ago

Hi very good article, i was 11 in 1957 and remember the good ole measles, mumps, and chickenpox we had a quarantine sign on our house. i also remember the polio bc at 11 i went to my 17 yr olds neigbors funeral. now that i’m 73 and in decent shape i’m just worried about those over 65 who have compromised immune systems for whatever reason. At this age the immune system slows down it’s just the way it is. so i’m trying to eat, healthier, exercise a little more and pray every nite for family, friends and our country.

2 years ago

Why aren’t we(and the journalist) asking the question “how is this time different”. Remember these of recent history: Zika-2016, Ebola-2014, Swine Flu-2009, Bird Flu-2005, SARS-2003, West Nile-2002. I think just politics.

dino deplorable
2 years ago

I am over eighty years old and lived through all of this.Now with the media and politics involved in this I have no fear that I will make it thru another siege,except now my Illinois governor closed all of my favorite restaurants.Do I think it will better the situation,maybe in big cities,but in my area,no.I have plenty of spam and egg noodles,so I hopefully will survive,no thanks to the densoc rats in Illinois !!

Anna Petrocelli
2 years ago

I am already a subscriber. Yes, I remember the time. It was the year I got married and I lived in Greece at the time. I don’t even remember that anyone I knew was ever sick. My first child was born then, and I don’t remember anyone panicking. I think that the more we know the more fearful we become…. I guess this is progress.

David Emerson
2 years ago

I have to wonder and I strongly suspect that in a years time this whole thing will matter about as much as the Y2K disaster. A huge hysterical responce by the media and Government to another nothing burger.
Surely hope and pray I am not wrong.

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