Anatomy of Fear and Panic
The 1968-1969 Hong Kong Flu pandemic killed one to four million people worldwide, and over 100,000 in the United States. Most of the American victims were over 65.
Adjusted for population, this would have been the equivalent of almost 164,000 deaths in the United States today.
Despite the lethality of the Hong Kong Flu, it didn’t create the kind of panic found today over the coronavirus, nor were any economy-killing lockdowns instituted, or even proposed. By and large, people took the Hong Kong Flu in stride – taking sensible precautions, but not making any substantial changes in routines. Schools and stores remained open, sporting events were held, and people went to restaurants and movies. A full presidential campaign was conducted in 1968, and the large Woodstock concert was held in 1969. No one gave any thought to closing down society in order to “flatten the curve.” People recognized a terrible virus was circulating, as viruses are wont to do from time to time. They did not panic, they did not demand government “do something,” and they did not try to force the entire population to cloister at home. The population of the late 1960’s recognized the reality of the virus, took sensible precautions if they felt vulnerable, but continued to go about their lives.
In terms of infections and fatalities, the Hong Kong Flu pandemic appears very similar to the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of this, why did the public react very differently in 1968 than they do now?
First, we have to look at the constitution and characteristics of the people influencing society and making policy in the late 1960’s. These individuals lived through the Great Depression and defeated the Axis in World War II. They knew true deprivation firsthand, and learned to cope with the challenges and risks of life. They were self-sufficient and reluctant to lean on anyone else for assistance of any kind. Hard work, saving for a rainy day, personal accountability, and personal accountability were still considered moral virtues. Communism and socialism were the enemy; they were not something to emulate and implement.
Secondly, there were real challenges and hardships in society in the late 1960’s. The civil rights movement was still very active, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated early that year. The Vietnam War was raging. Anti-war protests were breaking out on college campuses. Cities were devastated by urban riots. Political assassinations became all-too common. The Cold War was still raging with people living under the constant threat of global nuclear annihilation. Worry about a virus took a backseat to the more pressing problems of the day.
Compare that to those in positions of authority today. Today’s leaders and influencers were raised in the most prosperous time in American history. By and large, our nation has been at peace, with a small number of volunteer professional soldiers addressing any violent outbreaks. Employment is plentiful, and technology not even conceivable a generation ago is available to virtually everyone, including those below the poverty line. There are very few people alive today who have weathered the adversity common to the Greatest Generation. Self-sufficiency and individual responsibility are increasingly considered quaint traits – those raised by helicopter parents now expect the state to provide them similar security. Much of society has demanded government become in loco parentis – providing protection from bad individual decisions and socializing personal responsibility, accountability, and initiative. The collective has become paramount over the individual.
Whereas the Greatest Generation developed character though hardship and adversity, much of today’s population seek “safe spaces” from “triggering” comments and events. A 24/7 media trades in sensationalism, emotionalism, and fear, moving seamlessly from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis. Much of the population no longer wishes to confront challenges head-on – they want and expect someone else to do it for them. The skills of critical thinking and balancing options with risks have degenerated into blind fealty to comforting authoritarianism. Planning for the future and making wise choices is no longer important because someone in the government will always bail them out. Rather than be hardened by adversity, the current crop of leaders has grown soft from prosperity.
Let’s look again at the biggest issues and concerns of 1968 – 1969. They included civil rights and equality of all races, the draft and the Vietnam War, the raging Cold War, riots which forever altered communities, violent protests, demonstrations, and political assassinations. Each and all of these real events were consuming the thoughts of the population.
Contrast that with some of today’s biggest issues. Worry about which restrooms transgendered individuals should use and debates over whether taxpayers should pay the student loans of individuals having difficulty obtaining gainful employment from their Gender Studies degrees.
COVID-19, like the Hong Kong Flu before it, can have devastating consequences, including a large number of deaths. Yet we did not destroy our economy during the Hong Kong Flu pandemic and did not subject millions to joblessness and poverty because of a virus. We did not prevent individuals with other health issues from accessing their doctors. We did not force our population into a form of house arrest in order to placate the panic and fear of some.
In 1968 – 1969, we still thought and we still considered things from the perspective of reason. In 2020, far too many of us relinquish our thinking to others and operate solely from the perspective of raw hysteria and emotion.