pandemic

Pandemic Lessons Past, Present, and Future

By Bob Fisch

Remember the pandemic?

If that sounds like a funny question, what’s not so funny is this: if you look around, it feels like a lot of people have already forgotten about it, judging by the growing number of faces no longer behind masks.

I’m not about to take off my mask. Not when I wade into a crowd—or when I go out in public, for any reason.

I get it, though. I’ve heard all the points of view, and I’ve seen all the behaviors, including those we are told are a political statement.

Well, my mask is not a political statement. It’s a Bob Fisch statement. I make up my own mind what to do based not on politics but on my own common sense and best interests.

Are we over-reacting to COVID-19?

NO DISTANCING AT WOODSTOCK

It’s useful to look back 100 years to find out how other pandemics affected societies and their citizens.

We’ve all heard of Woodstock, right? Took place 1969 in upstate New York. “The Summer of Love”! Legendary rock festival with hundreds of thousands of young people on blankets barely six inches apart, let alone six feet apart.

But did you know 1969 also was the year of the Hong Kong flu? Neither did I. Actually, it was the second year of that pandemic, which wasn’t completely eradicated until 1970. That’s correct: it was doing damage for two years straight.

Must’ve been huge news!

Not really. People were aware of it. How could they not be when it infected the President of the United States (who didn’t create a Hong Kong Task Force with daily briefings), as well as a famous astronaut—while he was in space (who didn’t have to worry about being infected by crowds.)

I have friends who were at Woodstock. I recently asked them if they were concerned about the flu when they were there. They had no idea what I was talking about.

COMPARING PANDEMICS

That’s because nobody talked about it all that much then, or expressed fear or panic about it, despite the death toll in America after two years reaching 100,000, comparable to the number of coronavirus fatalities after 12 weeks.

Of course, the U.S. population counts are considerably different, 200 million in the Sixties versus 320 million today. Comparing percentages, the Hong Kong Flu death toll was .0005 of the U.S. population, and, so far, COVID-19 is .0003 percent.

But the giant scale of the Hong Kong Flu compared to coronavirus becomes more dramatic when you consider the vast difference in the worldwide number of deaths: 1-4 million then, less than one-half million now.

Then why is it that back then schools never closed? We were in college and not one class was canceled. Nobody was told not to go to work for weeks on end. Restaurants continued serving meals as usual. We went to the movies, to concerts, anywhere we wanted. Same as always.

NECESSARY DISRUPTION

In other words, there was zero disruption of our lives. Flash forward a half-century and none of us has to be reminded about the depth of disruption our daily existence has experienced. And for good reason: it was necessary to go to that extreme to confine the disease, to avoid a repeat of those 1-4 million deaths.

Why, in the past 50 years, did we become so much more risk-averse? Again, for good reason, because being risk-averse is how you avoid risking your life.

Who’s to say, also, that the Hong Kong Flu could have been better contained than it was, and taken far fewer lives, if we had been made more aware of safety measures like social distancing.

Whether it’s about health care, the economy, or politics, we’re more sensitive to news in the 21st Century. Why? Yet again, for good reason.

MEDIA OBSESSION

Everything is magnified and analyzed in microscopic detail, repeatedly, every hour of every day on 24-hour news channels. Social media. Mobile alerts. There was no such thing 50 years ago!

As much as it’s good to stay informed, there is such a thing as overkill. It was a quieter world back then, and we could use a little of that quiet time today too.

With endless information to process 24/7, coming at us from all directions, our heads are easily filled with cobwebs, to the point we can’t think straight. Or think for ourselves.

Limited to daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and a handful of broadcast channels on radio and TV, news in 1969 was transmitted more slowly than the Hong Kong Flu.

There had to be a 1960s version of Dr. Fauci who knew that wearing masks and social distancing and washing hands as often as possible were effective deterrents to the Hong Kong Flu.

But, to their credit, medical authorities at the time were more interested in finding a cure than talking about it. We could use a little less talk and little more action today too.

SIXTIES BYWORDS

Perhaps part of the 1969 thinking was that the public would never accept being dictated to so specifically. This was the Sixties, after all. The bywords were social rebellion and activism, not social distancing and hand sanitizer.

While I’d like to think our nation’s leaders have our best interests in mind, they might have overdone the media blitz for coronavirus. Sometimes less is more, as the Hong Kong Flu experience can teach us. People didn’t let it get in the way of enjoying their lives.

In addition to being more media-obsessed, we also are more health-conscious today, and that’s a good thing.

Life spans keep lengthening, and the older we get, the older we want to get. Being cautious is a logical form of self-preservation.

We are less accepting of mortality than previous populations. We also have a lot more conveniences (think about Zoom, for one), which makes it more tolerable to inconvenience ourselves to forestall our earthly departure, as long as possible.

100-YEAR-OLD MASKS

In many Asian cultures, donning masks in public has become commonplace over the last few decades. We can learn from the precautions they accept—as well as from our own history.

Looking back to the 1918 pandemic, the deadliest in history—with upwards of 50 million worldwide, 675,000 in the U.S.—Americans wore masks.

Somehow, the protective coverings fell out of vogue during both the 1957 and 1969 influenza attacks.

During the Hong Kong Flu era, if they wore masks and practiced what we have been doing, it might have measurably reduced the cases and the fatalities.

For that matter, if we were told to wear masks when the current coronavirus first snuck up on us, instead of weeks afterwards, how many tens of thousands of lives might have been spared in the past six months?

Respecting what medical authorities tell us, while at the same time keeping a level head about integrating new behavior into our lives, is the best medicine, I believe.

It is possible to resume our daily lives, enjoy ourselves, and be cautious—all at the same time.

I was encouraged to see glimmers of light recently breaking through the pandemic darkness.

Rational minds are speaking up that illustrate we can find a middle ground between the lessons of the Hong Kong Flu and coronavirus.

BACK TO SCHOOL

Citing the average age of his student body, the president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, wrote in The Washington Post that being reasonably risk-averse is not mutually exclusive with opening schools to in-person learning this fall.

It’s not an either/or decision. The two, in fact, are mutually inclusive. As he details in his article, with careful planning, and expert guidance, we can have it both ways.

Most tellingly, Daniels writes, “… nothing makes a more positive difference than personal behavior and responsibility.”

What he’s talking about is similar to what I call “tribal knowledge” in my book Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer, from ForbesBooks (MillennialBabyBoomer.com): exercise good old common sense.

Also, exercise situational awareness by being aware of your surroundings and of others around you, at all times (not just in a pandemic).

If more decision-makers would think and act like Purdue’s Mitch Daniels, we can get this great country moving again in the right direction: The Best Is Yet to Come!