Reflecting on a Previous Pandemic

One of my favorite writers, the pithy sardonic essayist Patricia Reed, recalls the flu epidemic of 1968. For today’s prophecy, I quote her here.

“In 1968, a flu epidemic, destined to go pandemic, broke out in China — probably in or near Hong Kong. (Strangely enough, even though Donald Trump at that time was not president of anything other than perhaps a construction company, the flu was nonetheless called the Hong Kong Flu.) It would last roughly eighteen months and kill over a million people worldwide.

It was primarily a seasonal winter flu variety and had two “lives:” an intense outbreak in the USA in the winter of 1968-69, and an even more intense outbreak in Europe and Asia during the winter of 1969-70. It had first appeared in the fall of 1968, and finally petered out by April 1970. Its peak periods were December 1968-January 1969 and December 1969-January 1970.

Obviously, it’s too soon to make final comparisons between that long-ago pandemic and our current ordeal, given that we are still only eight months into the Wuhan virus pandemic. Still, it is interesting and perhaps instructive to make some cautious observations.

The Wuhan virus has so far killed around 710,000 people worldwide, if we accept official tallies. (Which we should not necessarily do, because they are probably in lowball territory, thanks to under-reporting of fatalities by China, Iran, and North Korea.) So let’s assume that at least a million people have died from the Wuhan virus.

Even if we did that, we would barely equal the 1968-69 death toll at this point. Will we ultimately surpass it? Possibly, but not dramatically so, at least as far as we can now tell.

Clearly, by late 1968, our nation and increasingly the world were in the grip of a dangerous pandemic. So… which events, seasons and sessions were closed, postponed, or “made virtual?”

The answer is: none. Nada. Everything proceeded right on schedule. Including two national political conventions, a World Series, pro sports seasons complete with screaming fans, the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and even Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis.

There was no quarantine except of those who were ill. There was no sheltering in place. There were no masks. There was no social distancing. There were no checkpoints.

Recently, I did a little experiment and asked eight people what they remember about 1968-69. Several remember the ghastly MLK and Bobby Kennedy assassinations in early 1968 (right before the pandemic showed up). Some remember the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War.

Some recall the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, some the Olympics in Mexico City. One person remembers the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, one the Humanae Vitae encyclical of Pope John Paul VI. When it comes to 1969, the most-remembered events are Chappaquidick, the Manson Family horror, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.

So… of my unscientific sample of Americans from all walks of life — but most with college educations —how many immediately associate 1968-69 with a major pandemic that killed over a million people worldwide, just as our present pandemic bids fair to do?

And the answer is: zero.”

All I can add is the observation that the deaths in 1968 affected young and old alike, while COVID almost entirely exempts children. The bulk of COVID deaths come from nursing homes and hospitals and hit people already near their end.


George Gilder
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy

You May Also Be Interested In:

The Laws of Money

In this Daily Prophecy, I will recount some principles of the information theory of economics that I taught to my new group of virtual “Gilder Fellows,” and a hundred or so other subscribers who signed up on Zoom for my two-day program at the Discovery Institute last week.

Read This
George Gilder

George Gilder is the most knowledgeable man in America when it comes to the future of technology — and its impact on our lives.

He’s an established investor, writer, and economist with an uncanny ability to foresee how new breakthroughs will play out, years in advance.

And he’s certainly no stranger to the financial newsletter...

View More By George Gilder