The Flu Pandemic of 1968

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A friend recently sent a link to an article related to the 1968-69 flu pandemic. While I completely disagree with the author’s conclusion that the government’s reaction has been greatly overblown, it spurred me to research that 1968 pandemic. Mainly, because I have only a vague memory of a flu pandemic that began in Hong Kong, in July of 1968, and lasted approximately 18 months.

I was not quite 13 when what became known as the Hong Kong Flu began overseas and entered the United States in California and through the Panama Canal zone, via American service personnel returning from Vietnam, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. My age is perhaps one reason I recall little about it, though at the time I was a paperboy and had already developed the daily newspaper-reading habit that continues today.

There was a lot going on in 1968 both in the world and in my life. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down within the space of two months. The Vietnam War continued to escalate, while growing numbers of people took to the streets in protest. President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for another term sparked a tumultuous campaign on the Democratic Party side, which culminated in a (literally) riotous convention in Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley sent in baton-wielding police squads to bash heads of protestors on the streets of the Windy City.

Personally, I was attempting to recover from the culture shock of moving from tiny Allenstown, New Hampshire to South Longview, making new friends in the neighborhood, and attending Foster Junior High. The entire seventh grade class at Allenstown Elementary consisted of 15 students, including me. I have no idea how many students were in the eighth grade at Foster. A few hundred at minimum would be my guess. I quickly learned to lose my French-Canadian-Yankee accent to avoid being harassed every time I opened my mouth. But oddly enough, I don’t recall large absences of students due to the flu.

I headed to the newspapers.com website to see what could be found. Clearly, when it came to the Hong Kong Flu in 1968-69, I was oblivious. There were dozens of stories in the Longview News-Journal in 1969, including an amusing wire photo on the front page of a middle-aged woman in Ohio making a sour face while getting a flu shot.

The Hong Kong Flu pandemic ultimately resulted in the deaths of one million people worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While that is a staggering number, it pales compared to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and approximately 675,000 in the U.S., according to the CDC. Its victims primarily were elderly, as is the case now with the seasonal flu.

I remember as a child first learning about that 1918 pandemic from my Auntie May. She wasn’t really our aunt, just a dear family friend. Her fiancé died overseas in 1918 from that pandemic. I’m not clear if he was in the military or not, and there is nobody left to ask. Auntie May never married after his death. She was a sweet, old woman who loved children.


The article that piqued my interest in the 1968 pandemic points out that back then businesses didn’t close, schools didn’t shut down (unless the absence rate got too high), and the stock market didn’t crash. It concludes: The contrast between 1968 and 2020 couldn’t be more striking. They were smart. We are idiots. Or at least our governments are. By that, I assume the writer believes we should have just gone about our business when COVID-19 appeared. That didn’t work so well in countries like Italy, or, right now, Brazil. Perhaps, in 1968, the United States wouldn’t have had 100,000 fatalities if some protective measures had been taken. There is no way of knowing for certain. All I know is that in less than five months, the death toll in the United States from COVID-19 is fast approaching that of the 1968 flu pandemic, which lasted roughly two years.

I’m going to keep wearing a mask and go out in public at a minimum. We all have to individually make that choice. Of course, someone who is asymptomatic, out in public and not wearing a mask, risks making that choice for others by unknowingly transmitting the virus.

My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I are blessed to be able to work from home, at least for the summer. Many others don’t have that option. I fully realize that. Let’s just try to stay safe, folks, for the sake of those who are working the front lines of our health-care facilities, grocery stores and elsewhere. That’s not too much to ask.

Wear a mask in public. It’s the least you can do.

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